chapter  11
14 Pages

Civil society participation and accountability


The alleged democratic deficit and the waning legitimacy of the European Union have inspired scholars and practitioners to look for new ways of improving accountability in the EU. While acknowledging the weakness of representative channels in the Union, and the difficult road ahead before parliamentarisation is accomplished, they have shifted their attention to the direct involvement of civil society in the European political system. Letting stakeholders and civil society take active part in policy-making is considered to offer a promising complement to representative democracy (cf. Smismans 2006; Finke 2007; Kohler-Koch and Rittberger 2007). Greater societal involvement in EU policy-making will expose decisions to public scrutiny and, in the long run, contribute to the emergence of a European public sphere. Thus, it is believed, participatory and deliberative arrangements hold the potential to generate a better democratic legitimation of European governance (Steffek and Nanz 2008). At the heart of this new strand of political thought and practice is a

broader view on the meaning of accountability. Mark Bovens, for instance, argues that a lack of trust in European governance has created an urge ‘for more direct and explicit accountability relations between public agencies, on the one hand, and clients, citizens and civil society, on the other hand’ (Bovens 2007a: 457). Hence, accountability is no longer considered to be furnished solely through the representative channels of the Union, i.e. when voters hold office-holders to account. It also finds expression in participatory and deliberative arrangements, in which stakeholders and civil society are involved more directly in policy-making and implementation. In this vein, the European Commission has committed itself to ‘opening up the policy-making process to get more people and organisations involved in shaping and delivering EU policy’, with an eye to promoting ‘greater openness, accountability and responsibility for all those involved’ (Commission 2001a: 3). Thus, both scholars and EU officials regard social accountability as a possible remedy for accountability deficits in the EU (Bovens 2007b). In this chapter, I seek to assess the prospects for this new view on

accountability, on the basis of empirical findings from one important policymaking process in which new measures for societal involvement have been

process by the Commission, since it entailed inviting the public, stakeholders, and civil society to give their input throughout most of the legislative process. The question we must answer, then, is this: to what extent have the new participatory and deliberative measures tested in this policy-making process provided stakeholders and civil society with new opportunities to hold policy-makers to account? The test is a limited one, but it ought to make possible at least a tentative conclusion on the potential role of social accountability in European governance. This test indicated, if I may anticipate a little, that the chemicals-policy

overhaul was, at least to some extent, more transparent, more inclusive, and more responsive than is EU-level decision-making generally. Transparency, inclusiveness, and responsiveness are all prerequisites for accountability. Accountability itself, however, must be furnished primarily through the traditional representative bodies of the Union. Accordingly, those who decided on the new EU chemicals law were directly (in the case of the European Parliament) and indirectly (in the case of the Council) accountable to European citizens, and thus subject to the general democratic deficit of the Union. Moreover, European citizens have no way of holding the stakeholders and civil society organisations that were involved to account. Thus, while weak mechanisms of accountability (transparency, inclusiveness, and responsiveness) were improved, stronger ones were not changed in any way. The chapter will unfold as follows. First, I discuss the scholarly debate on

the promise and the pitfalls of participatory and deliberative governance. I then review some reforms that have been introduced in this vein at the EU level. Following this, I try to shed some light on the strengths andweaknesses of the new approaches to participatory and deliberative governance, using insights drawn from my review of how chemicals are approved in Europe. I conclude with a discussion of whether participatory and deliberative governance can live up to its promise.