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General overview

Introduction

This introduction gives an overview on the Commission's framework of consultation and dialogue with civil society and other interested parties. 

Before making proposals, the Commission must be aware of new situations and issues developing in Europe and it must consider whether the EU legislation is the best way to deal with them. That is why the Commission consults and is in constant touch with external parties when elaborating its policies. It also consults in the framework of the legislative process, two advisory bodies - the European Economic and Social Committee (representing various socio-economic organisations in Member States) and the Committee of the Regions (made up of representatives of local and regional authorities), and seeks the opinions of national parliaments and governments.

The very objective of consultation is to ensure that interested parties are heard properly in the policy-making process. Consultation with stakeholders at an early stage of policy shaping helps to improve the policy outcome and at the same time enhances the involvement of interested parties and the public at large. Consultation of interested parties thus complements the process of policy shaping. 

In its consultation policy the Commission applies the principle of openness. Everybody must be able to provide the Commission with input. Therefore, there is no general accreditation system for interest groups. However, in order to improve transparency in its relations with interest representatives, the Commission will in Spring 2008 set up a voluntary register for interest representatives. 

• On this website you can find Commission sites related to consultation and civil society dialogue. See the list

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Consultation organised by different policy sectors

Almost all Commission Directorates-General have contacts with civil society and other interested parties in their respective fields. The Commission works in a decentralised manner and its different services are responsible for their own mechanisms of dialogue and consultation. This decentralised structure allows the specific nature and conditions of different policy areas to be taken into account. 

Interested parties are consulted through different tools, such as Green and White Papers, communications, consultation documents, advisory committees, expert groups and ad-hoc consultations. Consultation via the Internet is common practice. Often, consultation is a combination of different tools and takes place in several phases during the preparation of the proposal.

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Legal framework for consultation

Wide consultation is one of the Commission's duties according to the Treaties. Protocol No 7 on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty, stipulates that "the Commission should [.] consult widely before proposing legislation, and, wherever appropriate, publish consultation documents."

Regarding the two institutionalized advisory bodies, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, the Commission consults them according to the specific consultation framework provided for the Treaties. 

As the so-called "social dialogue" by which the Commission consults the social partners at European level, it is regulated by the articles 137-139 of the Treaty.

Aarhus Convention

On the 6th of September 2006 the European Parliament and the Council have adopted Regulation (EC) N° 1367/2006 on the application of the provisions of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters to Community institutions and bodies.

The Aarhus Convention is widely recognized as the world's foremost international instrument promoting access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.

The Convention pursues its objective of a healthy environment for all by upholding the right of every person to have access to information about the environment. It places clear obligations on contracting parties to ensure greater public participation in environmental decision-making. And it promotes easy and effective access to justice if those rights are denied, thus enabling the public to challenge more general violations of environmental law.

 

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Coherent framework for consultation: Consultation standards

In 2002 the Commission adopted a Communication which established a coherent framework for consulting external interested parties. 

The Communication sets out principles (participation, openness, accountability, effectiveness and coherence), that should govern the Commission when it consults external parties. 

It also establishes minimum standards for consultation. They require, in particular, that 

(1) the content of consultation is clear; 
(2) relevant parties have an opportunity to express their opinions; 
(3) the Commission publishes consultations widely in order to meet all target audiences, in particular via the web portal "Your Voice in Europe", which is the Commission's single access point for consultation; 
(4) participants are given sufficient time for responses (8 weeks for open public consultations); and 
(5) acknowledgement and adequate feedback is provided.

These consultation standards apply, at the policy-shaping phase, to major proposals before decisions are taken. 

The consultation standards ensure that consultations are carried out in a transparent and coherent way in the Commission. However, the operational environment in which the Commission and civil society organisations function must be open in both ways: the organisations must also operate in transparent manner and it must be clear which interests they represent. This is why they are encouraged to declare their interest and be registered in the register of interest representatives. 

Better regulation

The consultation standards are part of the Better regulation action plan, which aims at clearer and better European legislation, and the practical follow-up of the White Paperon European Governance of 2001.

Consultations are an essential prerequisite for quality impact assessment. 
More about Impact Assessment

The Commission reports annually on the implementation of the action plan. The Better Lawmaking report contains, among other things, a review of the consultation of interested parties over the past year.

• See the reports Better lawmaking

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Scope of the consultation standards

The consultation standards apply to stakeholder consultations in the policy-shaping phase. In particular, they apply to proposals that undergo an impact assessment before their adoption. The impact assessment  process guides the policy-making process through an open analysis of the options and provides a discipline to ensure that economic, social and environmental factors are fully taken into account. Impact assessment is a standard feature of all the proposals in the Work Programme.

• See "Impact assessment " website 

• See "The Commission's Work Programme" site 

In practice, the Commission is in touch with external parties through out the whole legislative process including implementation. For example, the Commission consults the Member States via the so-called comitology procedure in the implementation phase. However, the consultation standards do not apply to comitology consultation. You can find more information and a register of comitology documents on Europa. 

Furthermore, the social dialogue by which the Commission consults the social partners at European level according to the Treaties, is excluded from the scope of application. (see also : Employment and Social Affairs link)

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Definition of civil society

There is no commonly accepted or legal definition of the term 'civil society organisation'. The consultation standards provide some clarifications on this. Have a look at the chapter "The specific role of civil society organisations".

It should be noted that in its policy of consultation the Commission does not make a distinction between civil society organisations or other forms of interest groups. The Commission consults "interested parties", which comprises all those who wish to participate in consultations run by the Commission. 

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Principles of openness and transparency

As already mentioned, the Commission wants to maintain a dialogue which is as open as possible. Therefore, it does not give associations an official endorsement by granting them a consultative status, which is a system applied by certain international organisations, such as the Council of Europe. The Commission wants to consult interested parties on the widest possible basis and to ensure that every interested party, irrespective of size or financial backing, is given the opportunity of being heard. 

At the same time, however, it must be clear to the general public what input the interest groups provide and how they seek to participate in EU policy development. In particular, it must be clear whom they represent, what their mission is and how they are funded. 

In March 2007 the Commission adopted a Communication on the Follow-up to the Green Paper 'European Transparency Initiative ' , to give more transparency to the framework in which lobby groups and civil society organisations operate.

A new voluntary register for interest representatives has been launched on 23 June 2008. Those who register certain information about themselves will be given an opportunity to indicate their specific areas of interest and, in return, will be alerted to consultations in those areas.

The Commission has also adopted a Code of Conduct for interest representatives which will become an entry requirement for the register.

In addition, the application of the Minimum Standards for Consultation will be reinforced. In the standards emphasis is placed on the principles of openness, transparency and accountability . 

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The Commission's staff's relations with interested parties

Relations of the Commission's staff with interested parties are part of relations with the public and are governed by the Staff regulations. In addition, more detailed provisions are set out in the Code of good administrative behavior, which the Commission adopted in 2000. 

In these documents it is emphasized that the staff shall always act objectively and impartially and in the Community interest. The staff shall act independently, within the framework of the policy fixed by the Commission, and its conduct shall never be guided by personal or national interest or political pressure.

The Commission's relations with interested parties must be seen in double perspective :

- on the one hand, the Commission emphasizes the principles of openness and transparency regarding dialogue with interested parties,
- and on the other hand there are the rules of behavior which regulate the Commission's staff's relations with external parties. 

With these two elements the Commission maintains a balanced relation: interested parties are allowed external input to the Commission and at the same time the Commission's staff's independence is preserved by rules laid down in the Staff regulations and in the Code of good administrative behavior.

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EU funding (Grants and loans)

The Commission pays direct grants to different beneficiaries, such as universities and NGOs, in pursuance of EU policies, in such fields as social affairs, research and development, education, environment, consumer protection and external policies. All EU funding is channelled towards precise objectives and priorities under the various policies, which, in turn are based on provisions of the Treaties.

• The objective of this civil society website is not to give extensive information on funding possibilities but to concentrate on questions of dialogue and consultation. You will find more information on funding on the "Grants and Loans " website and on the Commission websites of different policy areas.

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  • This site provides information on the dialogue and consultations of the Commission with civil society.
  • In "Spotlight on", we highlight a Commission site or theme that is connected to civil society.