chapter  12
15 Pages

Improving accountability in the European Union – the potential role of NGOs


In his contribution to this volume, Robert Keohane notes that the conditions for democracy in the classical sense are simply not present at the global level (and thus not at the regional level either). When looking at accountability at the international level, he suggests, we should pay careful attention to the role of information. And it is precisely information that lies at the centre of what non-governmental organisations (NGOs) regard as the key to accountability in the European Union (EU). Information helps enhance three important things – transparency, access to institutions, and participation in policy-making – all of which may be described as prerequisites for accountability (Bovens 2007b: 107). The aim of this chapter is not to portray NGOs working at the European level as some kind of panacea for problems of accountability within the EU (although a discussion of their potential role necessarily forms a central part of this chapter). It is rather to propose that, since NGOs are well-established and active actors at the EU level, it is important that we not overlook any potential role they may play in securing an effective accountability regime in the EU. Bearing this in mind, the chapter will unfold as follows. After briefly out-

lining the reasons why NGOs are valid actors to consider when thinking about problems of accountability, I review their possible roles (and limitations) in improving EU accountability. In the course of this discussion, it becomes obvious that the potential role of NGOs in alleviating the Union’s accountability problems relates less to accountability in its classical definition than to a ‘new form’ of horizontal accountability, which has been labelled ‘social accountability’ (Bovens 2007b: 112). Drawing on Bovens’ suggested framework for assessing forms of accountability (Bovens 2006: 24) connected with information-provision (which may be understood as a pre-condition for the establishment of accountability relationships), I present material from interviews with NGO actors. I then seek to evaluate the situation with respect to the provision of information to NGOs by European institutions, and I make some tentative but concrete suggestions – on the basis of the views presented – as to how the situation can be improved and the chances increased that NGOs will become effective actors in social accountability. I further argue that, if we wish to see NGOs make their (necessarily small)

will need to Council and the Commission. The European Parliament, furthermore, will need to be assigned a larger role in the institutional balance of power. NGOs, for their part, will need to organise themselves in broader and more permanent coalitions in order to play the role of broker between EU institutions and smaller groups.