A sick European civil society – Brussels

Brussels – incentives against reform

The European Structural Funds are no help for European civil society organisations (NGOs) in general, and have a toxic effect on Central and Eastern European NGOs. They create dependency on governments and transform NGOs into governmental contractors for the delivery of difficult/risky social services; a job disliked by governments. The European Structural Funds facilitate corruption and inhibit criticism. They also destroy the credibility of watch-dog organisations.

Other available EU funds (direct grants from the EC) are poorly designed and the selection process is more a lottery than a healthy competition. They are also exclusive (small and medium sized grassroots NGOs have very little chance to access such funds) and have serious inbuilt incentives for false reporting and sugar coating.

None of what I have written above is news. These things are well known within both European civil society and the European Commission. I wrote a number of articles explaining these issues[1].

In what follows, I argue that the solution to the problems associated with European funds for development will not, and cannot, come from Brussels, due to strong incentives against reform.

Brussels has the largest concentration of civil society organisations in Europe. Accordingly, most of the EU funds dedicated to civil society are spent for Brussels-based European umbrella organisations and NGOs.

Most of the NGOs in Brussels depend on keeping a good relationship with the European Commission, either to ensure their funding, or due to the fact that their main priority is to lobby the European institutions.

The typical NGO leader in Brussels lives a rather comfortable life, remote from the challenges of grassroots activist work. High-level meetings, receptions, writing, reading and discussing documents written in an Orwellian language incomprehensible to most of us, exchanging diplomatic niceties, praising and being constantly praised, is more or less the culture of European NGOs in Brussels.

The employment and success of these NGOs leaders often depends on their ability to maintain good contacts and friendly relationships with bureaucrats in the European Institutions. Ensuring that high-level EU officials attend NGO meetings is an important part of the job and one of the main indicators of success for many organisations in Brussels.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that some influential civil society leaders in Brussels have significant previous work experience within the European Commission; this is an important asset as it brings with it coveted connections and inside knowledge. These leaders come with a certain organisational culture quite different from that of civil society. For most of these leaders, academic, diplomatic and networking skills are more important than courage, the ability to inspire civil society, or pressuring bureaucrats. Their grassroots or hands-on experience dealing with harsh realities such as exclusion and abject poverty is at best limited, therefore they are not in the position to criticize the lack of hands-on experience of the European bureaucrats or their decisions.

At the same time, there is also a movement from Brussels civil society to EU bureaucracies. The great salaries and job security of the EU bureaucracy are attractive for many NGO leaders and staff. A significant number of NGO employees moved from civil society organisations to the EU bureaucracy.

Like most of us, the majority of people working in Brussels-based NGOs put the comfort and well-being of their families first. They also have to think about the sustainability of their organisations and the fate of their employees. For most of these organisations, losing EU funding would mean the end of a comfortable life.

So, all in all, there is little incentive for the leaders or staff of Brussels-based NGOs to swim against the current. The system is comfortable and advantageous to them and their organisations as it stands. On the contrary, pressure, strong action, and criticism – which we know are needed to bring about reform – carry significant risks:

  • These tactics threaten to tear the thickly layered interconnections between civil society and the EU bureaucracy.
  • Using such tactics can lead to a loss of funds (easy for a funding organisation to justify nowadays cuts due to economic crisis and the abundance of ready-to-please, funds-starved NGOs) and as a result, the death of the NGO.
  • Institutional memory is good, and a critical approach can cut off chances for NGOs leaders and employees of future employment within the EC.

A similar situation exists in the Member States. Most civil society leading personalities depend of their ability to keep their connections within the EU bureaucracies happy. Sometimes a similar requirement applies when it comes to national governments too (especially the case in Eastern Europe). Representations in important EU committees  (which comes with hefty pecuniary incentives) or invitations to join important EU meetings depend on good political connections and can be threatened by any inconformity.

It takes years of hard work to become the leader of an influential NGO in Brussels or to be known at the EU level for big national NGOs. Once in this position, there are few alternate career options outside NGOs or intergovernmental institutions. Seriously pushing reform (by employing critical discourse and strong pressure) is, very much out of the comfort zone for most civil society leaders in Brussels.

As I’ve shown here, the incentives to change the existing situation are very weak for most civil society leaders in Brussels, while incentives to maintain the status quo are strong. A similar situation applies for civil society leaders at the national level. Dignitary-like privileges and living standards become more and more the ideal of the European civil society activist. Diplomatic (often a misnomer for shameless lip-service) networking skills, connections, and a willingness to compromise are considered fundamental qualities for a civil society activist in Brussels. Courage, critical thinking, and the ability to inspire are barely recognised as qualities nowadays.

The majority of Brussels civil society risks becoming a mirror of the EU institutions: conservative, elitist and mostly irrelevant for the majority of the Europeans. A similar mirror is emerging in Central and Eastern European civil society, as many NGOs reflect the corrupt, unpopular and professionally inept governments.

During my time in Brussels I witnessed a board meeting where an EC bureaucrat threatened to ‘disappear’ an important NGO if it did not follow the wishes of the Commission. I have seen tens of people move from identifying themselves as civil society activists trying to change stupid EC policies, to becoming staunch defenders of other stupid EC policies, as bureaucrats employed by the EC. In 2008 I was told by a leader of a powerful Brussels NGO (previously a high-level European Commission employee) that we could not pursue the EU Roma Strategy idea as the (mighty and always right) Commission had clearly indicated that it would not accept it. Repeatedly, NGO leaders and well-intending EC bureaucrats warned me that continuing to write critically about these issues would burn my chances for EU financing or employment in Brussels. Not many seemed concerned about what I was trying to achieve.

The overwhelming majority of Brussels-based NGOs and senior managers in the European Union have little or no experience in Central and Eastern Europe; in other words, there is a serious disconnect from the problems of Central Eastern Europe.

This is a serious issue as the problems of Central and Europe societies are more acute that those of Western Europe. Civil society’s dependency on EU support in this region is almost total – as in Brussels (this is not the case in the rest of Western European where other financial sources contribute to supporting civil society) and has a very significant impact in the capacity of NGOs to motivate change in their countries.

The reform of EU institutions and EU funds is not an option, but a must if we aim for a healthy and thriving civil society. For now we have a good part of the civil society (at least in Romania) in an advanced state of decomposition and the stench might soon become unbearable regardless of how much money we throw at it.

To change the way EU funding works one needs 1.000. 000 signatures. Might be worth the effort. We made a first step relevant for Roma NGOs see here http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/urgant-call-to-stop-the-decline-of-roma-civil/

In my next posting I will look at basic needs and possible solutions.

[1] http://wp.me/p2HVQZ-1L -see also the footnotes in the posting


  1. Dear Valeriu,

    I’m sure you know very well what are my reactions and emotions on your last two articles. Did you sent them to the President of the European Parliament, to Mr.Jose Manuel Barroso and Mrs. Vivien Reding?
    Unavoidably this type of discussion has to take place among us Roma, among our communities in order to get answer on bad diagnoses, unacceptable situations made by Europe, various GONGOs, NGOs, networks, lobby groups, ‘the sick European civil society’ and also made by invalid Roma movement.
    This type of thoughts, are revolutionized reactions to European bodies and we should continue in such way having virtual action, demand, with strong very well organized voice of Roma.

    Radio Patrin will be very happy to talk to you.

    Sincerely yours,

    Orhan Galjus
    CEO, Radio Patrin

  2. Brilliant and, as far as I can judge after 10 years in Brussels – 5 years in an NGO, I was not involved in EU work before -, absolutely factual article. You cannot keep your independence and political integrity for long if your funding comes from the EU. I don’t necessarily agree though with the fact that you need to become a „diplomat” to be an effective campaigner; I think it’s on the contrary the unique ability of civil society organisations to go out in the public space and make some noise that really annoys the institutions, when it happens. What you see with „polite” NGOs is that they end up being co-opted and used for greenwashing and whitewashing: their impact is negligible and actually scandalously negligible when you see the means they have; sometimes they actually do more harm than good. Being friendly to EU officials is the easy way to try to influence them, and it also saves your chances for a comfortable career later; but then if it’s a career and a comfortable life you’re looking for you don’t have anything to do in an organisation that pretends to defend the common good. That’s at least my opinion. All the best and thanks for your courage.

  3. A sick European civil society-Brussels is a case of Doctor first cure yourself.It is based on wrong diagnosis.Is it really true that „Brussels has the largest concentration of civil society organisations in Europe” ? If only it did instead of being a drop in the ocean and a fraction of some 17,000 lobbyists round the EU.Most sectors of civil society are represented in one way or another,but there is often a problem of lack of viability and resouces.Our citizens house project is based on the idea that there is a need to bring together and strengthen exsiting organisations, as well as open up more beyond Brussels insiders.There is a long way to go.
    I really have a problem with generalisation and people talking as if they know what civil society is.As Hamlet sid to the courtiers:”Thou shalt not play upon me as if I were a flute” Generalisation, putting all politicians, and here civil society
    representatives in the same boat, is the route to populism and encouragement to the enemies of the open society.
    Of course there is always a danger for NGOs to get too close to power and there should be clearer blue water between EU officials and ouside interests, including NGOs.But would this be true of say Amnesty or Greenpeace offices in Brussels?
    In some sectors-say where humanitarian relef is shifted the relatioinship has to be one of partnership.Does that mean that development organisations don’t criticise and don’t sometomes get their way?
    Much of the economic and sociological generalistion behind this article is particularly wild.Many civil society representatives come from the grass roots, some like myself have escaped the European civil service with a big increase
    in freedom and decrease in salary and many ups and downs.I don’t think the picture given of European funding is accurate.It has become much more rigorous, impersonal and competitive.Most people would say it has become fairer but also more difficult particularly for small organisatrions-there you are right, but only a very small fraction goes to European umbrella bodies.We are sending you a free copy of our guide to European funding.
    There is a strong implication that criticism leads to loss of funds which makes civil society conformist and conservative.Can you show evidence? In my career I have been involved with European boycotts,going to the European Court and several complaints to the Commission or against the Commission to the European ombudsman.Sometimes there have been pressures and you have to call their bluff.The EU has rules,which are ours too. But in the years of struggling to create a Europeanised civil society I have never once had complaints about biting the hand that feeds us to be able to compete in Brussels-a playground for the business lobby ,second only to Washington

    1. Thanks for the reply and reading my article. Our experiences are different therefore our opinions. Sure thing I can show evidence of every single thing I wrote but that doesn’t mean I am right. What I write is my opinion and I do think that every opinion should matter even when we „wildly” disagree as it might be the case with the two of us. I prefer Mill to theater.

  4. I don’t know the money flow at the biggest level – but I can look at this. If you have any support/solutions/ improvements, I can offer contact details where do address all these, directely to M. Barosso, or to OLAF in case of corruption proofs.

    The idea to help the guverments and big NGO become from the point of view that they have already a logistic of the social status of the country, and the money can be used directly in the key points. The corruption and the birocracy is another problem, and there are solutions.
    The small NGO should present a lot of verification documents, that become difficult, because they cannot guaranty the quality of the people involved.

    But I can confirm some solutions given to all the poor people living in Brussels: applying to courses, classes, all are free, free advice, social aid, social houses, social support for children.

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