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NGOs, Democratisation and the Regulatory State

European Policy Forum, London
April 2003

In April and September, CARR hosted a two-stage conference with the European Policy Forum (EPF), the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Future Governance Programme of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), on the role and regulation of civil society in national and European governance. The conference began in London with participants responding to a paper by Frank Vibert, director of EPF. Vibert cautiously recognised the benefits of the growing public role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but criticised the conventional notion that these organisations are necessarily 'schools for democracy'. He went on to outline proposals for their internal regulation and external accountability. Most respondents to Vibert's paper agreed that NGOs may not actually meet democratic criteria in their own activities. Thus NGOs become not just a regulatory force in their own right but also potential regulatory subjects. The debate turned to regulatory tools that might protect the potentially beneficial initiatives of formally independent civic groups, and that have the capacity to preserve the innovative and flexible character of the NGO sector. 

The debate continued in Brussels where the European Commission's current implementation of new standards for the consultation of civil society organisations provided the backdrop to an exciting exchange of views on the nature and conditions of a European public sphere, and on the representation and regulation of NGOs at the European level. Contributions from a number of civic groups, including Amnesty, Solidar, and the Permanent Forum of Civil Society provided a more empirical, and somewhat optimistic, counterweight to Beate Kohle Koch's and Claudio Raedelli's theoretical work on the limitations of current European democratic systems. Kohle Koch and Raedelli's concern was with the isolation of European political spaces from a European wide political debate and the failure of European citizens to identify themselves as European political actors with the capacity and will to affect outputs. Some NGO speakers urged stronger recognition for NGOs in the proposals from the Convention now being considered by the Inter-Governmental Conference. Yet, the NGOs present spoke in broadly positive terms of the pattern of exchange between the Commission and interest groups. What was also apparent was that NGOs were now accepting the need to take on board the debate on governance and were aware that with NGO influence went NGO accountability. The question for them was the framework. 

The meetings benefited from a regulator's perspective provided by Rosie Chapman and Nancy North of the UK Charity Commission. Both speakers pointed to the voluntary efforts of UK charities to improve transparency and accountability, but also argued the need for some international standards for NGOs, such as the international accountancy standards currently being developed for commercial entities and the public sector; as yet, there is no equivalent for the civic organisation. John Roberts outlined the relevance of the debate on the higher standards of corporate governance in the business and its application to debates about higher standards of NGO governance. 

The September meeting closed with a contribution by David O'Sullivan, Secretary- General, General Secretariat, European Commission. Mr O'Sullivan cautioned against the dangers of funding a Brussels-based system of NGOs out of kilter with national-based civic groups, and opposed suggestions for an NGO accreditation system which he argued the Commission was unable to develop. 

Please follow the links to view the Programme| and the Report| for the proceedings.