The present working paper aims to cast some light on the concept of civil dialogue and its applications at the European level. The paper draws extensively on the experience gained during the implementation of the European project “Fostering Civil Dialogue in Europe” that brought together 7 partners from six different countries and explored various approaches and perceptions of civil dialogue. The starting point of analysis and exploration is the definition put forward by the EU Civil Society Contact Group – civil dialogue describes an interaction between public institutions and civil society organisations. It goes beyond information and communication, and is based on mutual recognition and responsiveness. It covers various degrees of formalisation, ranging from informal to legally recognised structures, from ad hoc to continuous exchange.
The effort of understanding civil dialogue must be placed in the broader debate about participatory democracy and what role does this play both at the national and European level. People participation to decision making and to policy making is crucial for democracy. Democracy goes beyond participation to elections and political parties’ organization, it means that policy making processes are accountable to citizens through transparent procedures seeking to incorporate public input.
Democracy becomes a rather complicated issue when discussed at the European level due to the triangular structure of the European Union and unequal power sharing in terms of policy making between the three main bodies – the European Parliament, The Council of the European Union and the European Commission. The policy making at the European level, is an aspect which stands out as very unsatisfactory. The results of the French and Dutch voting on the Constitutional Treaty proved that there is a serious disconnection between citizens and policy makers at the European level.
Civil dialogue as structured dialogue between civil society organizations and public institutions at all levels is perceived as a powerful instrument that could contribute to improving communication and participation of citizens to decision and policy making. However consistent efforts need to be undertaken in order to create the necessary conditions for this type of dialogue to happen. The European Union has a long and complex history in this regard. The Lisbon Treaty bears with it promising perspectives for participatory democracy and civil dialogue at the European level but there is still a long way to go until the treaty will become and enabling framework.