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Document 52012AE1586

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Strengthening the participatory processes and the involvement of local authorities, NGOs and the social partners in the implementation of Europe 2020’ (exploratory opinion)

OJ C 299, 4.10.2012, p. 1–5 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)



Official Journal of the European Union

C 299/1

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Strengthening the participatory processes and the involvement of local authorities, NGOs and the social partners in the implementation of Europe 2020’ (exploratory opinion)

2012/C 299/01

Rapporteur: Heidi LOUGHEED

In a letter dated 18 April 2012, Ms Sotiroula Charalambous, Minister of Labour and Social Insurance of the Republic of Cyprus, asked the European Economic and Social Committee, on behalf of the forthcoming Cypriot presidency of the EU Council, to draw up an opinion on

Strengthening the participatory processes and the involvement of local authorities, NGOs and the social partners in the implementation of Europe 2020.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 27 June 2012.

At its 482nd plenary session, held on 11 and 12 July 2012 (meeting of 12 July 2012), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion unanimously.

1.   Recommendations

The EESC calls on the European institutions and national governments to make a renewed political commitment to engage with all relevant partners (the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee, national parliaments, regional and local authorities, the social partners, organised civil society, national Economic and Social Councils or similar bodies, cities and all other forms of local authorities) under the Europe 2020 Strategy.

The EESC undertakes to build on work with the national Economic and Social Councils (ESCs) and similar bodies and national representatives of organised civil society by becoming the European contact point and to provide a dedicated platform for them to further their own work on the Europe 2020 Strategy.

In the long term, the EESC believes that the European Union should develop a long-term vision of the ultimate goal of stakeholder engagement and work to gradually develop this.

In the short term, the EESC believes that a number of small changes would have a significant impact on progress. In particular, as a matter of urgency, Member States and the European Commission should reconsider the timing and type of processes in order to allow for genuine engagement and co-responsibility by all stakeholders.

2.   Introduction


On 18 April 2012, the incoming Cypriot Presidency asked the European Economic and Social Committee to prepare an opinion on the subject of strengthening the participatory processes and the involvement of the local authorities, NGOs and the social partners in the implementation of Europe 2020 in light of its intention to make the issue a priority for the Presidency and for the Informal EPSCO in July 2012.

With the European Semester now in its third year, it is an appropriate time to look at participatory processes under Europe 2020 and to see how they could be developed.


The EESC's Europe 2020 Steering Committee is dedicated to overseeing the work and bringing together national ESCs and similar bodies in Member States to share experiences on how to improve participatory processes under Europe 2020.


The role played by the EESC in the implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy (1) is now fully recognised and the Committee wishes to share its recommendations on how to improve participatory processes under the 2020 Strategy and the European Semester.

3.   Europe 2020 – a new system


The European Union and its population are facing a severe economic and financial crisis that has had a severe impact on the whole of the European Union and its citizens. Many Member States have experienced extremely strained situations, and increased levels of unemployment remain a concern. The EESC therefore considers, as expressed in a great many of its opinions over the last three years, that the Europe 2020 Strategy is more important than ever as it offers a comprehensive agenda for reform aimed at securing sustainable growth and building a more resilient European Union.


The Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth is the growth strategy setting out targets in key policy areas at EU and national level. It is very wide in scope with the overall ambition of supporting smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and covering developments in innovation and R&D, climate change, energy, unemployment, industrial policy and social and territorial cohesion, addressing poverty levels, cohesion policy and much more.


The governance of Europe 2020 aims to bring together European, national and shared competences in a multilayer system, thus helping to enhance the legitimacy of deepening European integration. Compared to the Lisbon Strategy, Europe 2020 has interlinked flagship initiatives that provide focus and support in important thematic areas, priorities, headline targets, and a reinforced and rigorous oversight system – with the option of critical assessments of developments (or the lack of them) at national level.


Compared to the Lisbon Strategy, the reporting mechanism is different, not only because it is more highly concentrated, but because it is now aligned with the processes under the new and improved economic governance systems so that, for example, the Stability and Convergence Programme and National Reform Programmes are submitted to the European Commission at the same time allowing for a more complete view of where individual Member States are and where they intend to go.


A change in the process was first highlighted in the Europe 2020 Strategy document itself which made it clear that "we need greater ownership" and that to this end "the contribution of stakeholders at national and regional level and of the social partners needs also to be enhanced". A specific commitment was made that both the EESC and the Committee of the Regions should be more closely associated. This need for participatory processes has been repeated on several occasions, most importantly in the European Council conclusions of March 2010 and in the Guidance for drafting, implementing and monitoring National Reform Programmes under the Europe 2020 Strategy issued by the European Commission which reinforces that "it will be important to closely associate national parliaments, social partners, regions and other stakeholders in the preparation of the NRP, so as to increase ownership of the strategy".

4.   Experience of the European Semester


Three years into the Europe 2020 Strategy it is clear that many Member States are committed to involving the social partners and organised civil society in the European Semester and have involved these partners in their national processes. However, the application of this commitment is patchy, with varying levels of commitment seen and even where this commitment exists, varying levels of real involvement of partners in the process. While many Member States do inform and consult with their partners, the process often lacks focus and, from the point of view of those taking part, can feel disjointed or lacking in overall strategy. In particular, concerns have been raised by the EESC and others about the very tight deadlines, often leaving virtually no time for a proper discussion with the social partners, civil society organisations or regional and national parliaments. Nor are these concerns solely felt at the national level; many organisations at European level have questioned whether the European Semester process and governance, as well as monitoring under the Europe 2020 Strategy could be improved. The European Parliament has made policy recommendations in order to better define its own role and the contribution that it could make (2) and the Committee of the Regions is preparing to issue its own guidelines shortly.


Within the EESC, the establishment of the Europe 2020 Steering Committee has provided an essential focus to our work; providing the EESC with one group that has oversight of all that the European 2020 Strategy covers and the proposals linked to it, rather than only seeing it piecemeal. Representatives of the Commission and other stakeholders regularly attend meetings of the Steering Committee. To strengthen the link to national bodies, the Steering Committee regularly invites the national Economic and Social Councils and similar institutions to key meetings of the European Semester and organises Europe 2020-related events locally in cooperation with national civil society actors. These efforts should be stepped up and expanded.


The role that the EESC has played in bringing together the national Economic and Social Councils and similar bodies, although not solely focused on the European Semester and the Europe 2020 Strategy, has also proved useful in developing our and their analysis and understanding of the situations across the European Union and strengthening the proposals that both the EESC and they make.

5.   Value and use of participatory processes


It is clear that in order to optimise the impact of the European Semester, improving and increasing participatory processes under Europe 2020 would benefit the strategy itself and ultimately the well-being of citizens.


The European Union and its Member States often make reference to the usefulness of participatory processes and the involvement of organised civil society. The social partners and the broader public in fact have a number of different processes and systems in place; it is useful to be clear about why this is actually so important and what can potentially be gained from a properly functioning system ensuring greater participation. Proactively engaging with the social partners and organised civil society can generate:

a greater "footprint" for the spread of information throughout the European Union and a considerable ripple effect,

greater ownership of the strategies if they are felt to be generated by all concerned,

an early warning system - often by being much closer to the ground, civil society organisations and the social partners can provide an early warning system on developing micro-trends long before they would be seen at national or European level,

capacity to test ideas and develop solutions - not surprisingly, those closest to the situations are often able to road test proposals before they are implemented fully and frequently provide very pragmatic and effective solutions,

better implementation - in many cases it is the social partners and civil society organisations themselves who will be responsible for the actual implementation of proposals on the ground.

6.   Specific proposals to improve the participatory processes under Europe 2020


In looking at the processes used to date at both European and national level, the EESC believes that there is much to be done and that these processes can be built up to develop a system that will truly deliver a solid partnership among the European institutions, national governments, social partners, civil society organisations, national and regional parliaments and other stakeholders. Much of this will require focused and concerted effort and will not be achieved quickly. However, the EESC feels such systems should be developed by gradually building up a strategic and comprehensive multi-layered partnership process, while at the same time quickly implementing simple actions that could provide improvements in the short term.


Most importantly, the EESC calls upon all European institutions and national governments to renew their political commitment to more regularly and systematically involve the social partners, civil society organisations, national parliaments, regional and local authorities and all other stakeholders, ensuring that this is done as comprehensively as possible in the strong, viable and sustainable participatory processes under Europe 2020. The Lisbon Treaty stresses the need to consult civil society at European level in the decision-making process. If the Member States are to acquire for themselves more ownership of and engagement in both the 2020 Strategy and the European process, they should exercise the same discipline, consulting ESCs and similar bodies as often as possible.

7.   The EESC


With regard to its own role, the EESC considers that it is vital that it continues its focus and strategic engagement with all parts of the Europe 2020 Strategy, in order to maintain the capacity to see the possible synergies generated by the strategy and its constituent parts.


The EESC believes that the work undertaken by its own Europe 2020 Steering Committee should be continued and developed. The Steering Committee needs to retain its focus on the Strategy and its implications for the general public, and should build on its internal communication with those members not involved in the work of the Steering Committee in order to ensure that all benefit from the Steering Committee's overviews and insight.


The EESC considers that the work that it has been gradually achieving in coordinating the connections between and work of national Economic and Social Councils, where they exist, has had a very positive impact, but could be improved. Many of these organisations also have a role to play at national level in the Europe 2020 Strategy, as do many of their members. As regards improving involvement in the Europe 2020 Strategy, the EESC believes that this is an area where rapid, simple action could yield significant benefits. The EESC believes that it is ideally placed to become the European contact point for the national Economic and Social Councils and similar bodies, especially in assisting them with their own work under Europe 2020. The EESC is willing to make such a commitment and to begin this process of further strengthening contacts and cooperation by involving the national Economic and Social Councils and similar bodies in an event focusing on the Europe 2020 Strategy at the earliest opportunity.

8.   Acting quickly to make short-term changes


The EESC strongly supports the Cypriot Presidency's intention to focus on strengthening the participatory processes under the Europe 2020 process and to devote part of the Informal EPSCO in July 2012 to this work. The EESC fully supports this as a strong start for Member States and the European Commission to fully consider how they can each improve upon what they do.


The EESC calls upon all Member States to provide clarification at national level as to which government agencies are responsible for which measures under Europe 2020, and the relationship between the agencies responsible for coordinating or monitoring the National Reform Programmes and those agencies responsible for the actual implementation. Even a simple clarification of this in each Member State would enable actors to interact with the correct bodies to better effect.


The EESC believes that full transparency as to the forms of participation used in each Member State as well as descriptions of the processes and instruments that governments intend to use will provide clarity for everyone as to what is happening, why and how.


The EESC believes that the European Commission and Member States should urgently review the timing of the different actions under the European Semester. The most persistent challenge pointed out by nearly all stakeholders in the existing structures is the lack of adequate time allowed for any sort of considered response or proper debate. As a matter of urgency, the Member States should consider the deadlines that they currently use and how those could be made more reasonable.


The EESC strongly encourages regional and local authorities to deepen their involvement in the Europe 2020 processes within their national framework and directly at EU level. The establishment by the Committee of the Regions of the Europe 2020 Monitoring Platform is an excellent development towards this objective. The EESC believes that this greater involvement should be supported by national governments. The insights of local and regional authorities on local developments and potential applications is a key part of what should be put in place for Europe 2020 to play its full potential role.

9.   Developing a long-term comprehensive participatory process for Europe 2020


The EESC believes that there are very useful models already in place for the creation of strong structures for permanent dialogue. The EESC believes that the Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the decision-making process launched by the Council of Europe (3) provides an excellent framework and set of principles for this work which can be applied to the Europe 2020 Strategy. Using such a set of principles will allow the European Union and the Member States to gradually move discussions along the spectrum of involvement from fairly low levels of involvement primarily focused on information giving, through to open consultation, a developing dialogue among the participants until ultimately a true partnership can be developed – the four major steps along the spectrum of participatory processes as described in the Code. The EESC believes that the processes under Europe 2020 should begin to gradually move along this spectrum of involvement. The Code also provides a number of very useful tools that could be applied to Europe 2020 processes.


Organised civil society in Member States should be involved throughout the European Semester. One key process in the area of design is the drafting of the National Reform Programmes. The Member-State drafting process should build on a broad and more collaborative dialogue with the social partners and organised civil society. These actors do not only provide expertise in goal setting and the design of programmes and strategies for areas such as employment, education and social inclusion, they are also fundamental actors in the implementation of these strategies.


Another key step in the European Semester is the publication and review of the Country-Specific Recommendations. The European social partners and organised civil society must be informed and consulted on the country-specific recommendations for each Member State. In this context, timing is crucial so as to permit the involvement of organised civil society at an early stage in the formulation of future prospects for the following cycles.


The EESC has in previous opinions suggested benchmarking as a way to measure the progress made in the implementation of the EU 2020 Strategy. Here the national ESC or similar organisation analyses and establishes its own priority criteria using statistics which are freely accessible on the Eurostat website. Some ESCs are already practising this and other national ESCs should be encouraged to engage in the same process. With this benchmarking, the stakeholders continuously monitor the implementation of the reforms. This constitutes valuable input into the revision of National Reform Programmes.


Steps should be taken to energise the debate on the implementation of the EU 2020 Strategy in Member States, and governments should develop more effective feedback processes about the impact of greater civil and social dialogue on the Strategy. Here the role of civil society in the follow-up can be of specific value. Regular conferences in the Member States involving all relevant stakeholders would be useful but also open hearings in the Parliament presenting the National Reform Programmes.


There is a contradiction between the growing awareness among the European institutions about the need to consult organised civil society, and the difficulties currently faced by the majority of national ESCs and similar bodies. These organisations are often mostly financed by public budgets. In many Member States, their budgets have been slashed. This is leading the national Economic and Social Councils or equivalent bodies to focus solely on national priorities and to scale back their participation at European level. European institutions should consider how they could give support and assistance to these organisations, at least in their contribution to the European Semester.


As having a main contact point for the follow-up with national ESCs and similar bodies can be of specific value, the European Commission could consider giving the EESC the responsibility and support for organising a conference with all national ESCs or similar bodies and institutions at least once a year, carefully timed to fit in with the European Semester, in order to discuss the European Semester, the 2020 Strategy and their contribution and best practices in this area.

10.   Stakeholders


The EESC believes that the stakeholders themselves could also renew their engagement in the processes under Europe 2020. While believing that the primary responsibility rests with the Member States and that they need to review the processes for engaging partners, stakeholders themselves could learn more from each other and have more confidence in engaging directly with the European institutions as well as national governments. Equally, despite the need for governments to urgently re-think the timing of processes, stakeholders should improve their own anticipation of the stages of the European Semester.

11.   Specific proposals on employment, poverty and exclusion


In its request to the EESC, the Cypriot Presidency specifically emphasised the need for suggestions on closer involvement of civil society in implementation and follow-up in areas of social policy like poverty and exclusion. The EESC considers that involvement of stakeholders in a structured and regular dialogue at European and national level is critical to providing opportunities to find effective solutions in these policy areas.


It is helpful to pursue a stakeholder approach and to cultivate structured dialogue with civil society actors in shaping, implementing and monitoring policy as part of the work of the platform to combat poverty and exclusion. In areas like poverty and exclusion, it is often civil society actors that first register trends and social developments and bring them to wider attention. Their determined efforts to highlight the perspective of users and work to promote prevention, as well as the development and delivery of innovative services for these target groups, offer valuable lessons and experience for strategic efforts to address poverty and exclusion. Here the EESC underlines the important strategic role played by the social economy and NGOs, whose aim is to reduce poverty, promote job creation and develop services that meet society's needs in a creative way.


Within this policy field, it is important to mention the National Social Reports (NSRs), which complement the national reform programmes (NRPs) and are drawn up by the Social Protection Committee. Based on the open method of coordination, these reports assess the social dimension of Europe 2020. Taking the annual growth strategy as their point of reference, they identify the most urgently needed reforms and propose concrete measures. It is important to create a way of more effectively involving stakeholders in the NSR process, which does not yet happen to a sufficient extent, and to better link this to the NRPs. It is essential to strengthen the open method of coordination for social protection, taking integrated national strategies as the point of departure to create a stronger link with the European platform against poverty.


The annual EU-level events against poverty and exclusion should be followed up by a relevant hearing at national level in cooperation with public bodies, people living in poverty, NGOs, organisations in the social economy, the social partners and other civil society actors. The goal should be to identify and analyse progress and shortcomings in this policy area together, and to propose reforms. This event should be timed to coincide with preparation of the NRPs.


The ongoing dialogue and consultation on specific issues should also be planned in advance to allow sufficient time for interested parties to express their interest. As part of the stakeholder approach, there should also be a review of the social impact of the Annual Growth Survey and the progress that has been made.


The NRPs and setting of national targets are key aspects of efforts to implement the Europe 2020 Strategy and the political strategies on poverty reduction. It is important to define the poverty-related objective so as to include groups at risk of poverty and cumulative disadvantage, so that strategies and reforms are effectively targeted at these groups. Involvement of, and partnership with, civil society actors are of critical importance here, as these actors are often able early on to identify new at-risk groups or increasing risks for excluded groups.

Brussels, 12 July 2012.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  As supported by the Spring European Council Conclusions in both 2011 and 2012.

(2)  "How effective and legitimate is the European Semester? Increasing the role of the European Parliament" 2011.