How can EU decision-making be brought closer to Europe’s citizens? Based on a case study of the ‘REACH’ regulation governing the production and use of chemical substances, this posts argues for the potential of a participatory governance approach to increase the EU’s legitimacy by enhancing the capacity for stakeholders and civil society actors to play an active role in decisions. The author argues that while participatory governance alone cannot solve the EU’s current legitimacy crisis, it nevertheless offers a realistic option for increasing the responsiveness of EU decision-making to the demands of citizens.
The EU is often accused of suffering from a democratic deficit, and there has been a long search for ways to remedy this situation. Acknowledging the weakness of traditional representative channels in the EU, and the difficult road ahead before any form of ‘parliamentarisation’ could be accomplished, many observers have recently shifted their attention to the direct involvement of civil society in the European political system. Letting stakeholders and civil society take an active part in policy-making is considered by many to offer a promising complement to more traditional forms of democracy. In EU circles this strategy is known as the participatory governance approach.
Participatory governance in the EU
The European Commission has been a leading proponent of this participatory turn, and in the last decade it has introduced a range of instruments for improved consultation and dialogue with civil-society representatives, including ad hoc and online consultations, public hearings, and institutionalised consultations in advisory committees and business test panels.
According to the Commission, introducing these new forums for interest-group participation and deliberation at the EU level will help create a more democratic and effective Union. However, critics of the participatory governance approach warn that strengthening the interest-based channel within the Union will mainly serve to give further advantages to already privileged groups. The danger here is that, as E.E Schattschneider famously noted half a century ago in his critique of interest-group pluralism, ‘the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent’.