What’s cooking in Brussels: turmoil at the EESC

By Claire Stam
Schwarz-weiß Portrait von Claire Stam

The “whim of the gods” – or “caprice des dieux” as it is originally called – is a cheese that is known for its oval shape in a universe of traditionally round (like the Camembert) or angular products. It is also the name given to the building of the European Parliament, in an allusion to the supposed privileged status of its residents, but also to its shape, which resembles the box of the famous cheese.

There, in Parliament, the Committee on Budgetary Control will vote on September 26 on the EESC’s budget, which amounted to €150 million in 2021. The report to be presented next week by Spanish MEP Isabel García Muñoz will prepare the meeting.

MPs previously already refused to approve the 2020 budget and did so again at the beginning of this year. The reason? They called for an external investigation by the EESC into several harassment complaints that already led to investigations by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in 2018 and 2019.

Should the EESC be abolished?

That is all it took to reignite a debate that has been going on for years in the Brussels “bubble”: the one about the EESC’s legitimacy and purpose. In addition to the harassment allegations, critics also question the validity of the EESC’s opinions, the efficiency of its management and its budget. Some even believe that the EESC should be abolished.

To properly contextualize the debate, a brief historical review is needed: The EESC was created in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome and, along with the Committee of the Regions, is one of the EU’s two official advisory bodies. It is based on the French model, which was formed in 1946 in the wake of the major social reforms. Like its French counterpart, the EESC was established to allow European civil society actors to officially comment on EU legislative proposals. The Committee represents the interests of consumers, trade unions, employers and farmers, among others.

“The Committee is neither a lobby group nor a representation of particular interests. Our statements are generally based on consensus and express the concerns of European civil society as a whole as a common denominator,” Christa Schweng, EESC President since 2020, summarizes for Europe.Table. “The EESC is a network of networks: Our members come together to discuss important EU issues, and thus contribute to shaping and improving EU legislation.”

Cases of bullying and harassment

As such, the EESC is in a privileged position to express opinions on the Commission’s legislative proposals. Although these opinions are not binding, the ideas they present can easily feed into the deliberations of the Commission, the Council and/or the Parliament. “A concrete example of this is that the EESC was the first to call for a true European health union,” says Schweng.

And what does she have to say about the allegations? “In my capacity as President, I listened carefully to each of the victims of harassment or serious misconduct identified by OLAF in order to reach fair solutions. The EESC departments then followed up on this process and in all cases came to an agreement with the victims. On 13 April 2022, in a public statement on the EESC’s internet portal, I again officially apologized on behalf of the Committee to all the victims of the case at hand.”

Schweng explains that the European Parliament’s decision to postpone the discharge of the EESC to 2020 was based on the delayed implementation of the settlement agreement with one victim of bullying and delays in concluding such agreements with two other victims of serious misconduct. “The process has indeed dragged on longer, but this is for the essential reason that we have worked beyond purely legal obligations to find the best solutions for victims.”

Lobby for civil society

The EESC now provides monthly updates to the EP rapporteur and shadow rapporteurs for the 2020 discharge.

But we can also dig deeper into the question of legitimacy and turn the problem the other way around: If the EESC is abolished, will the Committee of the Regions also be dissolved? And who could then represent the voice of civil society in a city where an estimated 48,000 lobbyists work, the majority of them from the industry?

So it is no coincidence that the Conference on the Future of Europe demands a strengthening of the EESC’s institutional role in its final recommendations presented on May 9. Acknowledging that “a vibrant civil society contributes to fulfilling the conditions for EU membership,” the conference proposes empowering the EESC as a “facilitator and guarantor of participatory democracy activities, including structured dialogue with civil society organizations and citizens’ panels”.

In times when political debate can very quickly degenerate into fistfights and shitstorms, it seems more than necessary to be able to preserve everything that promotes “structured dialogue” and calms politically, since it is based on the culture of compromise – which is far from being the dirty word it is always made out to be – between citizens and their institutions.

With this in mind, one might think: Yes to a restructuring of the governance of the EESC, but not to its abolition. This would certainly improve the “whim of the gods”.

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