The European Union accepts NGO involvement in policy- and decision-making as not only a necessity, but as a requirement of the democratic system.  The Commission has formally recognized the contributions NGOs can make through different instruments, such as consultations through Green and White Papers, Communications, advisory committees, business test panels and ad hoc consultations.

NGOs monitor developments at EU institutions, and analyze the potential impacts on their members or interests. They inform members and raise their awareness, and engage and consult them on their views, bringing these standpoints back to the EU and challenging policy-makers and other stakeholders to address their concerns. NGOs play a multiplicity of roles. Due to their relatively higher connectedness to constituencies, they function as an early warning system for political debate, and as a voice denouncing governance deficits and agenda setter for neglected issues. Their policy input also helps legitimize EU decisions, due to the representativeness resulting from their member base. Given the weakness of transnational European parties represented in the European Parliament, NGOs also help fill an advocacy void that is normally taken over by political parties. At the same time, NGOs serve as a resource to the EU due to their policy expertise and understanding of complex policy-making processes, filling knowledge gaps and providing valuable input to the policy-making process. NGOs also often function as service providers in their home countries, making them a crucial partner in developing policy. Simultaneously, EU member states also have an interest in allowing NGOs to monitor EU policy, as this represents a way of indicating which areas are politically significant for important parts of the population.

A significant portion of European policy has been developed as a result of partnership with NGOs, and in particular with national NGO networks. Due to the EU’s structure as a supranational organization, it is very difficult for small NGOs to be part of influential policy circles. In response, they often work as part of national or European federations or associations. Small NGOs can usually only be directly represented if there are particularly knowledgeable or fill a niche role. Usually, only the large NGOs can afford to maintain a significant presence in Brussels. NGOs face a tradeoff between two operational approaches: Engaging the EU through an umbrella organization, whose connections to the respective constituencies of member NGOs are weaker and whose positions are more likely to have been weakened through compromise with other member organizations; and going it alone, in which case they might fail to ensure the EU perspective on an issue or realize the necessity of engaging Brussels actors. NGOs have two avenues at their disposal for influencing EU policy. First, they can use pre-existing networks with their own or third-party national governments in the hopes that the government’s envoys to the EU will represent their voices or even adopt them as their own. Second, they can lobby the EU directly, which tends to be more effective as it allows organizations to exert influence at the policy formation stage. NGOs often don’t act in isolation when trying to achieve their goals, but often form ad hoc policy coalitions. These alliances do not only comprise of NGOs, but can also include national and regional governments, industry, other interest groups (such as trade unions), and Members of the European Parliament and Commission and/or Council members. The roles of these coalition members can change, but each can act as an advocate, a sponsor, a researcher, an input provider etc. The coalitions’ primary rationale “is not long-standing common interests based on common value systems”, but the policy goal with a win-win situation for all coalition members. As a result of this horizontal coalition-building approach, the distinction between “insider” and “outsider” organizations to the decision-making system may no longer be valid: A lot of NGOs engage in traditional outsider tactics (direct action, legal action and similar, confrontational strategies) while simultaneously adopting insider approaches (consultation, education, scientific research etc.). Gaining media exposure for a subject, conducting scientific research and engaging in political lobbying are considered the most effective tactics.

Inside Lobbying Practice of NGOs

  1. Participation in EC Consultations: Consultations regarding legislative proposals. Consultations can be targeted, i.e. open to those who the Commission has invited to respond, or open public consultations, i.e. open to everyone. Open consultations are popular with many NGOs as these organisations can express recommendations and concerns on specific topics directly to the Commission.
  2. Participation in structured dialogue organized by the European Commission: Examples include the Civil Society Dialogue and formal working groups. Directorate General (DG) Trade, e.g., frequently organises civil society dialogue forums in which NGOs, labour unions, business representatives and other stakeholders can share their views on specific issues with Commission representatives.
  3. Ad-hoc interaction with European Commission officials: NGOs directly contact a DG when they want to have particular issues addressed.20 DGs themselves also organise regular meetings with NGOs (‘ad hoc meetings’), outside the formal structure of expert groups.21
  4. Ad-hoc interaction with MEPs: During the legislative process, NGOs engage directly with particular MEPs: rapporteurs, shadow rapporteurs, committee chairs, the assistants of the committee secretariat or group officials. MEPs are considered ‘the main gatekeeper in forming the opinion of the Parliament.’
  5. Ad-hoc interaction with EP Intergroups: NGOs can also impact legislative proceedings through their participation in Intergroups. NGOs can provide coordinators or the secretariat for such groups and can influence policymaking by setting agendas and designating speakers. They can also facilitate the creation of EP written declarations, since through Intergroups they can pressure MEPs to sign declarations.23


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