Capacities of participative governance: The role of NGOs in EU politics

Master's Thesis, 2006

64 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


1 Democratic deficit and crisis of legitimacy

2 Deliberative democracy and the regeneration of legitimacy

3 The role of NGOs from a deliberative perspective
3.1 The scientific point of view
3.2 The global dimension
3.3 The European dimension
3.4 The national dimension
3.5 The Non-Governmental point of view
3.6 Resume of hopes and expectations towards NGOs

4 Framework conditions for EU-NGO cooperation
4.1 Legal and institutional framework
4.1.1 Principles and regulations
4.1.2 Consultation by policy areas
4.1.3 Approaches towards trans-sectoral and multileveled influence
4.1.4 Problems and limitations
4.2 Financial framework
4.2.1 Sources of EU Funding
4.2.2 Grant giving criteria
4.2.3 Resulting disparities and concerns

5 Berlin case studies
5.1 Online deliberation by ‘’
5.2 Make deliberation be politics – Politikfabrik

6 Towards a genuinely participative governance
6.1 A reform for civil dialogue
6.2 Equal and inclusive involvement

III Conclusion


In the move of the ‘Europeanisation’, the deepening and widening of the European Union, the system of European governance is becoming ever more complex. The increase from 15 to 25 Member States and the needs of cooperation amongst the different levels of the European Union (EU) - European, national, regional and local level – are posing a challenge to democracy. The lack of democratic legitimacy of today’s traditional system requires alternative ways of governing which are already developing. A solution to the question of legitimacy and structure is the deliberative democracy theory of John Dryzek. In this context Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), as representatives of civil society, are playing an important role and the EU promotes the cooperation with this sector. However, cooperation is concentrated on NGO umbrella organizations on the EU level. It is argued, that the socio-political strategy of the EU undermines the idea of deliberative democracy and in particular the function of NGOs. Through privileging selected, international networks the latter risk loosing their autonomy. Smaller and local NGOs tend to be left out, even though it is especially those that have close contact with the citizenry and the practical knowledge to develop strategies for solutions. Consequently, new socio-political structures need to aim at involving a wide range of NGOs of all sizes and levels into EU politics as partners next to international networks. EU politics need to become more flexible so that established traditions do not hazard the genuine representation and involvement of civil society in a deliberative sense and thus democratic legitimacy.

The paper is divided into six parts. First of all, the deficit of democratic legitimacy within the complex transnational European system is described. As a solution to this problem, the deliberative democracy approach is presented in the following part. The third chapter explains hope and expectations different actors hold towards NGOs as representatives of civil society and as a deliberative means to provide legitimacy. To understand in how far NGOs are actually able to fulfil these expectations, the fourth chapter gives an insight into the European legal and institutional as well as financial framework conditions within which NGOs act. The fifth part provides some examples of NGO activities and their practical experiences with EU cooperation and support, showing strengths and weaknesses of the European political system taken from a deliberative stance. Chapter six builds on the findings, elaborating suggestions for a reform of the European socio-political structure enabling NGOs to fulfil their function and finally facilitating a genuine participative democracy. The study concludes with an outlook into possible developments of a European governance system and the integration of all citizens in the latter.

1 Democratic deficit and crisis of legitimacy

The initiative for a united Europe came from political elites (Sommer: 2002:109). Next to individual persons it were primarily the governments who pushed the development from the European Economic Community (EEC) over the European Community (EC) towards the European Union (EU). Although the development of the European unification process was accompanied by the question of legitimacy and democratic control from the beginning on, European citizens were not that much involved. A clear answer to the question in which form EU citizens can be involved better into the deepening and widening of the EU has yet to be given.

The integration process is leading to an increasingly complicated interlacement system and has repeatedly been critiqued as undemocratic and distant to civilians, e.g. in the frame of the ratification of the Maastricht treaty in 1993 (Maurer, 2002:29).[1] Central critic is the assessment that within the EU generally binding decisions are taken which immediately intervene into the political freedom of development of citizens, but which are exercised by a political power that is not or not sufficiently democratically legitimated (Knelangen, 2004:121).

Legitimacy as condition for the effective functioning of a democratic order and social structure can be interpreted in a formal as well as a social way (Naßmacher, 1972:19-21; Weiler, 1991:2403-2405). According to Bruha both elements of legitimate sovereignty have to be given to legitimate a political system of rule (Bruha, 1989:15). The formal or rather institutional legitimacy in Western democracies is guaranteed through democratic procedures, which create an uninterrupted chain of legitimacy between sovereign bodies and the citizenry in the form of parliamentary elections and legal allocations of competences (Bruha, 1989:15). The democratic deficit in this theoretical understanding is twofold (Maurer, 2002:42-44): On the one hand, in the course of the integration national parliaments have passed on more legislative responsibilities to the EU system than the European Parliament (EP) received. On the other hand, the Council of Ministers and Commission, which are equipped with crucial decision authority, can, at least to a degree, intervene into living conditions of citizens, without being subjected to a control like exercised on the EP. This means that they are not subjected to a control that has the power of imposing sanctions through a body directly legitimised because of elections. Altvater and Brunnengräber explain why, as a consequence to the developed global as well as European multileveled structures, a new form of supranational governance is required. Nation states possess democratic legitimacy, because they are elected by their citizens and consequently also international institutions used to be regarded as democratically legitimate, as they were the expression of relations amongst states. The principle of non-intervention in inner affairs secured the sovereignty of the nation states within their territory and towards the citizenry, which in turn provided the national government with sovereignty outside the country. But, under the circumstances of changing structures of the international system and, in particular, under the circumstances of Europeanisation, the deepening and widening of the EU, the former territorial sovereignty state institutions used to have is not effective anymore. First of all, certain subjects or problems in the globalising world have no national limits, such as the global warming and the ozone layer depletion. Second, rules of international institutions like the WTO or the IWF are as binding as an international treaty, once a country becomes a member. The membership of the EU as an international institution has even stronger obligations. Furthermore, since the end of the war in Kosovo, there is the demand to place human rights over national sovereignty. Under this assumption, interventions into inner affairs are justified, if they are happening to protect human rights. The EU, as a supranational regime, is taking over more and more competencies, providing a major challenge to democracy especially after the recent enlargement from 15 to 25 EU member states. (Altvater; Brunnengräber, 2002:6-8)..

The social or rather structural democratic deficit theory describes the actually existing and empirically provable acceptance of a political system and its performances rendered in the course of its exertion of power (Bruha, 1989:15). In this context the decreasing participation in EP elections can be interpreted in the way that the EP can not communicate its role and performances to the citizenry so that the latter would feel an incentive to assign mandates for the next electoral period.[2] The reason for this is the multileveled structure of the political system of the EU (Maurer, 2002:374). This in return creates a lack of democratic control of EU politics and its central issues.

As a result, new political structures of supranational governance are developing, building up an interrelated system between formal and constitutional institutions, international organisations and informal forums, working groups and networks, such as NGOs (Altvater; Brunnengräber, 2002:6-8). To ensure democratic legitimacy in this complex system of changing political structures, new forms and ways of democratic politics in the European Union are being discussed. A theoretical solution to the problem of the democratic deficit within the EU as a developing supranational system is the theory of participatory or rather deliberative democracy, which will be the focus of this analysis.

2 Deliberative democracy and the regeneration of legitimacy

The debate about supranational governance is accompanied by “the wake of the deliberative turn” (Dryzek, 2000:v) in the theory of democracy, representing “a renewed concern with the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic, and engaged by competent citizens” (Dryzek, 2000:1). The ‘deliberative turn’ is including considerations on institutional reforms and on the appropriate form and limits of state action. In the EU of today, the relationship amongst state, civil society and market as well as the participation of the civil society in politics are leading political issues. Major contributors to deliberative democracy are i.e. Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls or John Dryzek.

Democracy is derived from the Greek ‘demos’, meaning ‘people’ and ‘kratos’, in English ‘rule’ (Held, 1987:2). Democracy is a form of government where the people rule.[3] The basic values or goods, of which democracy can achieve one or more, are “equality, liberty, moral self-development, the common interest, private interests, social utility, the satisfaction of wants and efficient decisions” (Held, 1987:3). Deliberative democracy is a theory of participatory democracy, the latter being based on the justifying principles that “an equal right to self-development can only be achieved in a ‘participatory society’, a society which fosters a sense of political efficacy, nurtures a concern for collective problems and contributes to the formation of a knowledgeable citizenry capable of taking a sustained interest in the governing process” (Held, 1987:262). The underlying assumption therefore is that the principal alternative venues for democracy and a deepening of democracy are the state and a civil society that is given its orientation by the state (Dryzek, 2000:114). ‘Deliberative’ is the “quality or state of being deliberate” – deliberate being “characterized by or resulting from careful and thorough consideration” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). Hence, deliberative democracy is based on and promoting a politically educated and active society participating in politics through careful and thorough consideration of effective solutions to solve collective problems.

As pointed out by Dryzek, the theory of ‘deliberative democracy’ is characterized by two tendencies, one that is combinable with the liberal and constitutional idea called liberal constitutionalist deliberative democracy, and another one, that he refers to as ‘discursive democracy’[4] and which is rather critical towards liberal constitutionalism. Dryzek supports the latter, arguing that a theory of deliberative democracy is only defensible if it is “critical in its orientation to established power structures, including those that operate beneath the constitutional surface of the liberal state, and so insurgent in relation to established institutions” (Dryzek, 2000:2). However, these two are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive (Dryzek, 2000:2). Below the term ‘deliberative democracy’ will be applied in the sense of Dryzeks’ ‘discursive democracy’.

Based on an ‘input-oriented’ point of view of governance and legitimacy, democratic legitimacy is provided by “the ability or opportunity to participate in effective deliberation” (Dryzek, 2000:1) on the part of those who choose to deliberate, but not every citizen actually has to do so (Scharpf, 1999:16-18). A further emphasis of the deliberative model lies on the broad inclusion of opinions. The idea is to “communicate across difference without erasing difference” (Dryzek, 2000:3). Deliberative democracy allows a plurality of discourses in deliberation and it also points out the constructive contestation of discourses which allows for dissent and for opinions from the margins to be heard (Dryzek, 2000:168). In Dryzeks opinion, the hearing of truly public interests is welcomed from the standpoint of social problem solving. There are “mechanisms endogenous to deliberation that achieve an appropriate and acceptable balance between private and public interests, partial and impartial concerns” (Dryzek, 2000:169). By stipulating fair procedures of public reasoning that are, in principle, open to everyone, the outcomes of a deliberative procedure will be seen as legitimate because they are the result of a process that is inclusive, voluntary, reasoned, and equal (Dryzek, 2000:85-86). Such discursive dialogue, according to Dryzek, should not be excessively formalized. Rather, precise specification of model institutions could be left to the individuals involved. However, certain communicative ethics should be embodied in rules of debate (Dryzek, 1990: 41). Central guidelines are the avoidance of bargaining positions and instead putting emphasis on the interests of actors involved or efforts to reach proposals of net benefit to all participants (Dryzek, 1990: 41-42).

Apart from the legitimate and fair outcomes deliberative democracy wants to generate, it also aims at creating more just and rational decisions. The conditions of inclusion and norms of reciprocity specified by deliberative democracy ensure the hearing of a variety of voices concentrated on free and reciprocal reasoning among equals on any public controversy. This way, individuals are motivated to mutually acceptable reason giving to others and the power in decision making is given to the better argument (Dryzek, 2000:86).

It is especially important to note that deliberation does not aim for a consensus, because it is “unattainable, unnecessary, and undesirable” (Dryzek, 2000:170) in a pluralistic world. More feasible and attractive are agreements on the course of action to take, even though this might be for different reasons. What distinguishes the social process of deliberation from other forms of communication is the reflective aspect of the term, because deliberators may change their opinions during their discourses “through persuasion rather than coercion, manipulation, or deception” (Dryzek, 2000:1). The emphasis of deliberative democracy, according to Dryzek, lies on the building of public opinion through contestation and the interchange of ideas, and its transmission to the government using communicative methods, including rhetoric. It is a democratic alternative which complements the liberal model in which the essential transmission mechanism is elections (Dryzek, 2000:4).

Thus, deliberative democracy provides a solution to the democratic deficit of the EU by legitimising European politics “through the progressive recognition and inclusion of different groups in the political life of society” (Dryzek, 2000:113). This highly selective political inclusion sometimes relates to a general inclusion in the life of the state or rather the EU as a political organization. However, as pressures for democracy and democratic movements almost always have their origins in civil society as revolts against civil authority or the established government, “a flourishing oppositional civil society is the key to further democratisation” (Dryzek, 2000:113-114). In this sense Dryzek highlights the positive influence of an exclusive state on democracy. Generally, he argues, that if state imperatives and determining movement interests can be reconciled, the entry into the state is much better, for reasons of democracy as a whole and the instrumental advantages for the actors involved. If these two can not be reconciled, he argues, then it is better for movements to undertake the contestation of discourses within civil society, because then entry into the state means “co-optation and being bought off cheaply” (Dryzek, 2000:5). A flourishing civil society is vital because it is a resource for future democratisation of the state and it is a control against reversal of the democratic commitments of the state (Dryzek, 2000:171). ‘Within civil society’ thus refers to the inclusion in the political organization beyond the state, in other words “in the public space between individuals and the state” (Dryzek, 1990: 40). On a transnational scale, instead of introducing more government, a deliberative solution to ensure (deliberative) democracy is the democratisation of the “discursive sources of order” (Dryzek, 2000:5) already existing within the EU or rather the international system.

One widely discussed means of civil society organization and participation, mostly happening in the public space between individuals and the state are NGOs and their networks.

3 The role of NGOs from a deliberative perspective

Varying terms are being applied to describe NGOs. They range from ‘non-profit organisation’ over ‘voluntary organisations’ to ‘civil society organisations’. However, the term ‘NPO’ or ‘NGO’ is too general to instantly make clear what kind of organisations it refers to. There is no generally accepted definition of the non-governmental sector, as it is hard to fit all sizes and types of organisations such as small community theatre groups or big global organisations with thousands of members into one definition. Moreover, they differ in their scope of activities as well as in their financial and professional background. Nevertheless, there have been very accurate attempts to assess the characteristics NGOs generally have in common. Lester Salamon and Helmut Anheiner, two of the leading theorists, list their formal structure, their private non-governmental nature and their voluntary nature. They describe NGOs as not aiming at making profit for their owners and being independent from governments or any institutions, following a policy of self-determination (1992:127). The non-government sector and the concept of civil society today is understood as “a positive association of people independent of the state, contributing to the development of civil values and social capital, and taking a generally constructive stance towards democracy as a social order” (Vajdová, 2005:23).

Hopes and expectations towards NGOs of different actors, such as scientists, national and European politicians, of NGOs themselves, as well as from a global perspective are described in the following part to understand the role and function of NGOs from a deliberative stance.

3.1 The scientific point of view

The role that NGOs play in society is still a topic of discussion amongst scientists as well as in politics. While economists regard NGOs as service organisations, providing services not offered or not sufficiently provided by the state, in the sociologist’s opinion NGOs are playing a larger and more active role. They consider NGOs to be advocacy organisations defending interests of certain collective associations (Frič; Goulli; Vyskocilová 2004:1). The latter understanding is gaining considerable acceptance and is the base for this analysis. Deliberative democracy theorists define NGOs as a deliberative tool. Habermas e.g. concentrates his model of deliberative politics primarily on social movements, but empirical research has proven that the institutional relation of the model can, with certain restrictions, be extended to a communal level and to NGOs. Also Dryzek includes NGOs as actors within international ‘discursive’ design (Dryzek, 1990: 103-106). Ottersbach describes that deliberative processes can not only be found within social movements, but also within institutionalised forms of civil engagement and even within the representative political system.[5]

Social capital, “the shared norms and values that bind individuals together”, which NGOs generate as voice of the civil society, is the source that makes it possible to “cooperate in the collective interest” (Keman, 1998:xv). This articulation of wants and needs of citizens and thereby translating them into political demands stirring up the political process is called advocacy and generally recognized in science as well as politics as the key role of NGOs. In particular, they articulate interests that have so far been underrepresented. Advocacy combined with their critical analysis and monitoring of governmental activities is often referred to as the “watch-dog” (Schramm, 1995:9) function. Further core functions are listed by Altvater and Brunnengräber. One is campaigning, aiming at the change in behaviour of governmental as well as economic actors and the society as a whole. Moreover, NGOs are an important resource of expertise. A considerable amount of knowledge is pooled and contributed to decision making processes through consultations, media, brochures and lobbying (Altvater; Brunnengräber, 2002:8). Jürgen Schramm describes additional functions of NGOs. Competing with other organizations, they foster political equality through the stimulation of diversity and the growth of different opinions. Another important role of NGOs for democratic society is their contribution to political socialization. They educate citizens in political theory, the political system and political participation. Additionally, particularly in the new Central and Eastern European Member States, they play a vital role in reforming institutional structures and raising political awareness. The national and international networking NGOs undertake is a crucial means to fulfil their functions mentioned above, as it provides them with up-to-date information on national and international developments and serves as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Through these networks they are considered to play a crucial role in guaranteeing democratic control by spreading debates and also information about undemocratic developments or violation of human rights widely, which might not be available to governmental bodies, such as embassies. Therefore, NGOs, such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace function as “early warning mechanisms” (Schramm, 1995:10). Inhumane or undemocratic developments detected by NGOs are then introduced into public discussion. Dryzek emphasizes the particular key role the network form can play in setting up deliberative democratic control with respect to political discourse and hence the performance of governance in the international system (Dryzek, 2000:138). NGOs are moreover creating more public and transparent decision-making processes. On round tables, in parliaments or international negotiation forums NGOs cooperate, negotiate and try to find consensus. The arguments of those discussions gets a hearing, because they are supported by the public outside these political structures (Klein, Walk, Brunnengräber, 2005:57).


[1] Until 1989, the democratic legitimacy of modern national states has sometimes been criticized, but was generally accepted (Altvater; Brunnengräber, 2002:6). However, recently critiques have become much stronger due to changing structures of the international system after the Cold War.

[2] In relation to decreasing electoral participation see: Europawahlen – Ein Parlament auf der Suche nach seinen Wählern: (accessed 01/10/06).

[3] A more detailed definition of the term democracy can be found in the introduction of Held, David (1987).

[4] It goes beyond the scope of this study to include the thorough argumentation and distinction of these terms and tendencies Dryzek makes. For further investigation see Dryzek, John (2000).

[5] In his empirical research Ottersbach applies the model of deliberative democracy to the NGO ‘Greenpeace’. For further details see Ottersbach, Markus (2003): p.244-261 and 292.

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Capacities of participative governance: The role of NGOs in EU politics
University of Bath  (Modern Languages and European Studies)
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Capacities, NGOs, participatory democray, governance, NGO, EU politics, deliberative democracy, democracy, non-government organisation
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Diplom-Kauffrau, MA Contemporary European Studies Vanessa Buth (Author), 2006, Capacities of participative governance: The role of NGOs in EU politics , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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