+44 (0)20 7799 6677

A synthetic civil society

In English-speaking countries the essential preliminary to democratic government has been an active civil society consisting of groups formed spontaneously and voluntarily to pursue some common interest. This could be religious, economic, professional, charitable, recreational, educational or moral.

Most of these groups had no initial political interests. Their only concern was to organize and govern themselves in the manner they thought best enabled them to fulfil their primary function, and they only became political when some attempt was made to interfere with their freedom of action. In this apolitical and even selfish manner, civil society became the first defender of the liberties of the English people. These voluntary institutions also taught the manners of democratic elections, governance, debate and rule making, how to deliberate and decide despite disagreements, and then act. In so doing, they were constructing the infrastructure of a democracy under the rule of law.[1]

In time they were joined by associations whose aims were to raise public awareness of some political or moral issue or a social problem they considered important, and sought to use their collective voices to bring pressure on members of parliament to bring about some legislative reform. Still later they were joined by political parties which selected and supported candidates for elective office which, when organized nationally, supported or sought to change the government of the country.

Under late British imperial rule, colonies’ civil societies grew and developed the infrastructure of representative government. This is why one American scholar seeking to find all the possible social, political and economic prerequisites and correlates of democratic government around the world found that ‘recent statistical analyses of the aggregate correlates of political regimes have indicated that having once been a British colony is the variable most highly correlated with democracy’.[2]

The supra-national government of the EU has no foundation in civil society. The elite who created the original European Community were primarily concerned with creating an executive arm of government that might exercise supranational authority, which they first accomplished by creating the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. After the Treaty of Rome in 1957, it became the European Commission, which has remained the central pillar of European government to this day.

Although the elite were not particularly concerned that its supranational institutions should be democratically accountable, they realised from the beginning that if it was to survive, it would require some democratic legitimation beyond that indirectly brought to it by the elected heads of government in the periodic meetings of the European Council and Council of Ministers.

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 therefore provided for an Assembly to which elected members of national parliaments were nominated by their governments, and where debates on Community issues would occur, as if it were a European Parliament, though with no legislative powers. The Treaty also created the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) to serve as a bridge between Europe and civil society, so that the voices of employers, employees and other organized interests might be heard by the Commission. The Assembly was later renamed a Parliament and in 1979 became directly elected, though it still has no power to initiate legislation. The EESC remained as a bridge even if few came across it.

The Commission remained in the dominant position that it had been placed in by the founding fathers and accumulated more and more powers, especially after the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Commissioners were not drawn from the Parliament, nor routinely accountable to it, but nominated by their governments, and assigned their portfolios by the President, and then approved en bloc by the Parliament. The President of the Commission only required the majority approval of the heads of the member governments until 2014 when majority approval of the members of the European Parliament was also required.

Civil society had taken no part whatever in the construction of this governmental apparatus, since there were hardly any professional, trade, religious, educational, recreational or charitable associations which drew their support and membership from across several member countries, and no pan-EU pressure groups or parties. Europe’s civil societies remained stubbornly national.

This only became of interest to the European Commission in the years after the Maastricht Treaty. The Community became a Union and the foundations were laid for the creation of the new European superstate, and it was hoped it might be a democratic one. Turnout in EU elections continued to decline, favoured policies were rejected in referendums, and there were unmistakeable signs of falling popular support in polls including Eurobarometer, and of increasingly organized and popular euroscepticism.

The Commission then became increasingly interested in educating its citizens in the virtues of European integration, and in creating the NGOs and associations of an organized pan-European civil society that had failed to emerge spontaneously. In a discussion paper in 2000, Commission President Romano Prodi and Vice President Neil Kinnock argued that NGOs would help to promote ‘European integration in a practical way and often at grassroots level… and their networks and national members can serve as additional channels for the Commission to ensure that information on the European Union and EU policies reaches a wide audience.’[3]

In contrast with the evolution of democracy in English-speaking democracies, the new European polity has evolved backwards, with an executive and court preceding a legislature, which is still nominal, with civil society very much an afterthought, owing its existence largely to the sponsorship and financial support of the executive branch of government. It cannot therefore perform quite the same functions as the voluntarily and spontaneously organized civil societies of the English-speaking world. They felt free to inform, monitor, scold, shame or challenge elected and appointed state officials. The synthetic civil society of Brussels version is, as its sponsors intended, rather better at receiving information from the Commission. A Commission white paper in 2001 proposed ‘greater co-operation between European Commission & NGOs to get citizens more actively involved in achieving the Union’s objectives.’[4]

Some of the organized interests in this emergent pan-European civil society are authentic, spontaneous, self-financed representatives of their own interests, most notably the multi-national companies subject to European Commission regulation. After some initial hesitation, they were followed by trade unions whose symbolic international affiliations go back to the early twentieth century. They were at last able to live up to their long-proclaimed, and long-ignored, internationalist ideals as fellow lobbyists for their members in Brussels. A few religious associations also have authentically pan-European affiliations which long precede everyone else’s.

There are, however, a host of other political, environmental and recreational lobbies, pressure groups and charitable associations who appear to owe their existence entirely to the goodwill and the funding of the Commission.[5] Some examples have been taken from the breakdown of the 2002 EU budget below:

  • Our Europe Association – A study and research group which sponsors and organises seminars on European issues. Their funding was €600,000.
  • European Union Youth Forum – A non-profit international association that acts as a political platform to facilitate and stimulate their participation in the European decision-making process. It lobbies the EU on issues affecting young people by organising conferences and other activities. Their funding was €2,000,000.
  • Journalists in Europe – This organisation runs an annual training programme for young journalists from around the world, focussing on the EU and on political, economic and social developments in Europe. Their funding was €250,000.
  • European Women’s Lobby – An organisation which lobbies the EU on issues of concern to women in Europe and is considered an essential adjunct to EU measures in support of women. Their funding was €650,000.

There are in total some 250 odd recipients in the year. The serious-engaged pressure groups, like those listed, receive the large five or six-figure grants. Budget line B3-500 allocated €7 million to trans-European political parties which ‘contribute to forming European awareness’. However, there is also a large tail of other recreational associations such as orchestras, artist co-operatives, operatic groups, conscientious objectors, pharmaceutical, engineering and other student groups, museums and sports clubs who receive grants of under €10,000 with no apparent political goals. At first sight therefore, funding leaves the impression of a representative cross-section of civil society, except that it appears to be trans-national in some respect.

A researcher from the Institute of Economic Affairs, Christopher Snowdon, conducted an investigation into EU communications, activities and funding. He found those receiving the larger grants tend to be of the centre-left politically and use a distinctive vocabulary of ‘stakeholders’, ’sustainability’, ‘capacity building’, ‘active citizenship’, ‘awareness’ and ‘identity’. The word ‘subsidiarity’ is not commonly used. Snowdon’s data on the proportion of their income from the European Commission suggests many of them would not exist were it not for the EU. The European Women’s Lobby was granted €911,677 which was 83 per cent of their income for the year, and the European Network Against Racism €1,081,164, 81 per cent of that years income. As these examples indicate, funding recipients often take the form of umbrella organizations for authentic national societies. Some effort is made to reach the professionals of such societies by supporting the Euclid Network and the European Council for Non-Profit Organisations (CEDAG), which was granted €120,000, 80 per cent of there annual income.[6]

Some of the funding promotes worthy causes that have little popular support, such as the homeless, the disabled, foreign aid, fat taxes or minimum alcohol pricing, and a good number support the EU’s own environmental and climate change agenda. However, despite appearances, this is not quite a random and representative cross-section of civil society, since none of them have ever shown any sign of doubting or questioning the EU’s direction of travel, the case for closer European integration, more EU regulation or larger EU budgets. Snowdon, not unreasonably, dubs them ‘sock puppets’.[7]

Thus the European Commission and the European Parliament have finally been joined by a civil society of sorts, carefully selected organised interests who can be relied on to say what the Commission wants to hear, and at times even to protest against it. Even then they only demand that a policy on which the Commission has already embarked upon should be pursued with more vigour and determination, and with more funds.

There is, however, a price to be paid. In English-speaking countries, voluntary associations monitor, inform, warn, pester and challenge governments, and civil society counter-balances the power of government. It makes it difficult for elected governments to ignore public opinion for long. The sock puppets surrounding EU government increase the power of the Commission and make it rather easier for it to ignore public opinion.


[1] The different, and somewhat chequered, history of civil society in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, The Netherlands and Belgium is described in N. Bermeo and P. Nord, Civil Society before Democracy: Lessons from Nineteenth Century Europe, Maryland, Lanham, 2000.

[2] S.M. Lipset et al., ‘A Comparative Analysis of the Social Requisites of Democracy’, International Social Science Journal, vol. 45, 1993, pp. 155-175.

[3] R. Prodi and N. Kinnock, ‘The Commission and Non-Governmental Organisations: Building a Stronger Partnership’, Commission Discussion Paper, 2000, Available from:

[4] European Commission, European Governance: A White Paper, COM (2001) 428, Brussels, 2001, p. 15, Available from:

[5] M. Ball et al., ‘Federalist Thought Control: The Brussels Propaganda Machine’, Bruges Group, June 2002,

[6] C. Snowdon, Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s remaking of civil society, Discussion Paper No. 45, IEA, 2013, p.23, Available from:

[7] Snowdon has also documented contemporary home-grown versions in the UK, so it is a matter of degree not of kind.

  1. Snowdon, Sock Puppets, How the government lobbies itself and why, Discussion paper No.39, IEA, 2012, Available from:

Please specify which chapter you are reading and offer feedback using the form below.