One strategy for addressing the EU’s democratic deficit is to provide a greater role for civil society actors in decision-making. However, as Corrado Fumagalli explains, the simple participation of civil society groups in EU policymaking is not enough to confer democratic legitimacy. It is also vital that they participate at key stages of the policy process.

The inclusion of civil society groups in the EU policy process became a political imperative almost thirty years ago. Indeed, the inclusion of such groups in agenda setting and feedback mechanisms has often been seen as a panacea for crises in EU democratic legitimacy.

If we assume that civil society groups allow for neglected interests to enter EU democratic processes, then their inclusion is clearly desirable for the legitimacy of the EU’s institutions. Yet the fact that the democratic process in the EU excludes certain civil society groups is widely known. It is a message that has often been repeated by scholars, politicians, policy pundits, civil society actors, and citizens alike.

However, it is possible to add something more to this debate. For a decision to be legitimate, it is not only important that civil society groups play a role in EU decision-making. It is also vital that they do not enter the process at too early or at too late a stage. In short, timing matters.

This is a concept that will be familiar to any sports fan. The baseball manager Sparky Anderson earned the nickname ‘Captain Hook’ for his tendency to take starting pitchers out of a game at the first sign of trouble. Meanwhile, the latter stages of a lopsided basketball game, where one team has a sizeable lead and the result has become a formality, are often dubbed ‘garbage time’. During this period, the best players on a team are typically replaced with substitutes who are tasked with playing out the clock. In politics, much like in sports, it is not only important that you take part in the game, it also matters when you do so. Civil society groups may be included in the EU policy process, but this matters little if they suffer from bad timing.

Credit: Diego Torres Silvestre (CC BY 2.0)

To put this idea in context, we can take inspiration from John Dewey and Elizabeth Anderson by dividing the standard EU decision-making process into three parts: talking, voting, and feedback. The ‘talking’ stage covers deliberative mechanisms prior to ratification, both at the national and supranational levels, that aim to build consensus and legitimise policy decisions. ‘Voting’ is the adoption of a policy measure at the supranational level, while ‘feedback’ incorporates ratification, implementation, monitoring, and the evaluation of a collectively binding policy measure.

If actors are included in the very early stages of the decision-making process, but are excluded from deliberation as the process progresses, this is an example of ‘Captain Hook’ politics. Previous research by Dawid Friedrich has shown that as decision-making processes in the EU draw to a close, the interests of non-state actors can often be ignored. Alternatively, if the inclusion of interests occurs only after a decision has been made, we have a case of ‘garbage time’ politics.

The exclusion of civil society groups may affect the legitimacy of EU decisions – in the short run, at least. By moving outside institutionalised deliberative channels, civil-society groups can mobilise their interests against supranational policy solutions. Had such interests been used productively by supranational institutions, dissent would have instead led to revisions, a rethink of collectively binding decisions, and perhaps re-legitimatisation of the whole process. In the last couple of years, as part of the so-called Better Communication Agenda, the European Commission has been moving in this direction, opening up channels to revise old and outdated legislation.

Now, if we want to take the point of view of EU institutions, it is important to identify possible barriers that prevent civil society groups from advancing their interests in public deliberation before and after voting. If we want to take the point of view of civil society groups, it is crucial to identify particularistic biases and systematically neglected interests in supranational decision-making processes. This would allow strategic positioning and perhaps entry into institutionalised processes.

Viewed through these lenses, if they find a more legitimate EU to be a desirable outcome, civil society groups should be vocal in their demand for inclusion and in asking for deliberative processes prior to and after voting so that a large number of otherwise neglected interests can contribute to the entirety of the policy life cycle.

There is room for an understanding of institutionalised deliberative processes as a constant learning process. From that perspective, inclusion prior to voting would not be sufficient to consider a decision as being fully legitimate. The inclusion of otherwise neglected interests in post-decision deliberation would also be benign in overcoming pathologies such as ‘Captain Hook’ and ‘garbage time’ politics. For a decision to be fully legitimate, it has to be intrinsically revisable and open, over time, to new and changing interests.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in Political Studies

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Corrado Fumagalli – LUISS
Corrado Fumagalli is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Political Theory at LUISS. He obtained a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan.

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