Listening to Monday’s speakers during the Budgetary Control Committee of the European Parliament’s workshop on “Democratic Accountability and Budgetary Control of NGOs Funded by the EU Budget” one could easily have had the impression that we were about to discover a big financial mismanagement scandal in which civil society organisations have been wasting money in the dark spheres of their membership. However, this is far from the truth.
There was a study published recently by the European Parliament’s Policy Department on Budgetary Affairs. To uncover what exactly? What was behind this? The pretentious defence is that it is “in the interests of the tax payers” or to contribute to re-establishing trust between citizens and the EU institutions.
One of the important progresses of the Lisbon-Treaty was, and still is, article 11 stating that civil society needs to be consulted at every stage. That principle is largely respected by the EU institutions although there’s still room for improvement. It has also helped to articulate the difference between social dialogue among social partners and our civil dialogue.
Many of us started campaigning for a European status for European associations 35 years ago. Four years ago the signatures of more than 400 MEPs were collected, but the dossier is still not making progress because some - mostly conservatives - in the Member States argue against such a form of harmonisation. It would be helpful to those who have doubts to read the full wording: a European status for European associations. So at no stage was it a matter of harmonisation. Although we have European status for enterprises, works councils, foundations, parties and more, our networks remain to have Belgian International Not-for-Profit status. We are under a financial regime of the Belgium Chamber of Commerce as if we were a business.
From time to time it is said that some of us have or should become a business, a social business in the internal market. This may be an option for some, but would not take into consideration our general interest or the societal role we play. In the workshop last Monday a German MEP even referred to the US where in his understanding “non-governmental organisations would not ask for government funding”. First, this is not true and secondly the US has a tax system that allows them to deduct up to 100% of donations to charities. Is this pure philanthropy? The MEP may have forgotten who in his city takes care of disabled, people living in or at the edge of poverty, of migrants and refugees: associations with NGO status and with public funding. So a level of honesty is needed in our common interest: the private sector and the market do not regulate everything, it needs actors with the general interest and competences that are provided by professionals and volunteers. This is our understanding of subsidiarity.
Transparency and democratic structures are our strength, the commitment to Europe and improvement of European policies our added value. We are not part of the capitalistic speculation casino mentality. Yes we want financial support, yes we can justify why and for what. Yes, we do advocacy and lobbying work – in the general interest. We enrich ourselves in ideas, not in profits. Only in dictatorships is civil society excluded and prosecuted. This is the real worrying trend of our shrinking civic space, as reports presented in the European Parliament in November have proven.
It is civil society, stupid!
This editorial appeared in the Weekly Round Up of 10th February 2017.