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Institutions of the European Union

Institutions of the European Union (4th edn)

Dermot Hodson and John Peterson
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p. 37816. Social and regional interests: The Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regionslocked

p. 37816. Social and regional interests: The Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regionslocked

  • Carolyn Rowe
  •  and Charlie Jeffery


This chapter examines the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR), and more specifically how they provide a focal point for organized social and regional interests. It first provides a historical background on the EESC and the CoR before discussing their functions and operations. It then considers how the development of both bodies reflects the ways in which interest mediation in the European Union has expanded, pushing these formal vehicles of social and regional interest representations to the fringes of policy networks. The chapter also explores how the EESC and the CoR contribute to European politics and concludes by assessing their added value in an open policy process with a burgeoning private lobbying sector and new groups of collective interests emerging all of the time.


Since its founding, the European integration project has provided for the formal inclusion of social and regional interests through, first, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), created in 1957, and more recently, a Committee of the Regions (CoR), established in 1994. While neither has full institutional status nor codecision p. 379rights, they provide a focal point for organized social and regional interests. Their impact, however, remains debatable. Minor ‘successes’ in shaping policy outcomes by no means suggest a role and function on a par with the Commission, European Parliament (EP), or European Council. The validity of the EESC and CoR has been questioned, because interest groups have shown themselves able to engage in the policy process without a formalized representative structure. Nonetheless, such is their symbolic force that they have weathered the recent crises that have tested the European Union (EU). Despite calls for reform of the EU’s system of governance, the EESC and CoR remain seemingly insulated from such debates and their future seems secure.


The EESC and the CoR are two formal bodies that were established to represent two specific sets of interests within the EU’s inter-institutional nexus: the interests of employers and employees, and regional interests, respectively. Neither enjoys full institutional status, and each instead relies largely on goodwill and informal contacts to gain access to the heart of the decision-making process. As the number of competing interests in Brussels grows, both bodies are faced with the need to maintain their relevance. Squeezed to the margins of the policy process, existential questions now cast a very large shadow over their roles, functions, and operations. What is their relevance in the contemporary European political system? What value do they add to EU decision-making?

This chapter considers the role and purpose of these two bodies. It begins with a historical consideration of their establishment, and examines the extent to which the context in which they were founded continues to provide a rationale and legitimacy for their operation. The chapter then looks at the manner in which the operations of both bodies have had to develop over time in response to shifting institutional circumstances. The development of both bodies tells the story of how interest mediation in the EU has expanded, pushing these formal vehicles of social and regional interest representations to the fringes of policy networks. The chapter then moves on to an analysis of the contemporary operation of both bodies, assessing how they contribute to European politics and analysing their real added value.

Although launched in very different eras, the EESC and CoR have a remarkable amount in common. Much of this commonality was deliberate: the EESC served as the institutional template for the establishment of the CoR. The internal structures of the two bodies are similar, as is their advisory status. They share a newly renovated headquarters at the heart of the EU district in Brussels and sizeable permanent secretariats of more than 500 officials to support the work of their members. More fundamentally, they have had similar founding rationales: securing this degree of p. 380transnational input was felt, at the time of their creation, to be valuable for the European decision-making process. In neither case, though, have many observers been convinced that this rationale of added value has been delivered.

The origins and history of the EESC and CoR

The EESC and CoR were each fashioned in Treaty negotiations held at critical stages in the European integration process. The 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the EESC, built out radically in 1958 from the narrow foundations of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) to inaugurate a much wider project of economic integration. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which provided for the creation of a committee of regional interests in the EU, was an ambitious response to market deepening, new global economic pressures, and, above all, the collapse of the Iron Curtain. At such critical moments as these, negotiating agendas are fluid and windows of opportunity for new, and often unanticipated, initiatives can emerge. The EESC and CoR both fall into this category.

The idea of establishing an economic and social committee as part of the new European Economic Community (EEC) emerged only in 1956 and was finally agreed just two months before the Treaty of Rome was concluded in March 1957 (Smismans 2000: 4). It was introduced to the agenda by two of the smaller players in the negotiations, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their aim was to reproduce the corporatist models provided by their domestic social and economic councils—forums for consulting business and trade unions in economic policy-making—in the new EEC framework. The proposals fell on fertile ground: five of the founding six member states (except West Germany) had similar domestic institutions (Lodge and Herman 1980: 267).1 Germany originally opposed the proposal because of its negative experience of a similar economic and social body, the Reichswirtschaftsrat, during the Weimar Republic (Hrbek 1993: 127).

Two other factors argued for an EESC and led to its adoption against West German opposition. First, the idea of bringing in the expertise of the ‘social partners’ of business and labour to economic decision-making was consistent with both the predominantly economic logic of the early stages of the integration process and the prevailing climate of corporatist interest representation. ‘Europe’ could even lend its own example in the form of the Consultative Committee, comprising representatives of employers and workers (and also of traders and consumers), which had been established to support the work of the ECSC.

Second, the proposed ECSC Assembly, the forerunner to the EP, was to be indirectly elected, at least initially, and limited to a consultative role. As such, it did not provide ‘normal’ parliamentary channels for bringing interest-group influence to bear on European decision-making, in that there was no clear parliamentary focal point for lobbying activity. In this sense, some felt that the EESC was needed as a p. 381supplementary representative body for the new Community, perhaps even ‘as an incipient parliamentary-legislative assembly—the third organ in a tri-cameral legislature alongside the Council of Ministers and a European Parliament linked to the Commission’ (Lodge and Herman 1980: 267).

The idea of establishing a committee of European regional interests developed traction throughout the 1980s. The Single European Act (SEA) of 1986 had ushered in a new suite of policy responsibilities for the European level of governance, sustained by the activist Commission presidency of Jacques Delors. This expanded agenda saw European competence creep into the spheres of authority of many of Europe’s local and regional governments. Furthermore, local and regional governments found themselves responsible for on-the-ground implementation of many new European policies, decisions over which they had little input, amidst heightening tensions over the legitimate sphere of European competence. ‘Strong’ regions—that is, territorial entities with their own autonomous governing capacities—were disproportionately affected by the shifts of policy responsibility upwards to the European level following the implementation of the SEA. These regions were, understandably, in the vanguard of pressuring the European institutions for change, through some kind of formal compensation for their lost responsibilities. Those member states of the regions that had been most affected as a result—Germany, Belgium, and Spain in particular—came under domestic pressure to push for some form of regional institution in Brussels.

Whatever the tensions over legitimacy, the SEA had created a new framework of political cooperation amongst levels of authority across the member states of the European Community. As the scope of these policies grew, regional and local governments were inevitably drawn in as desirable partners in policy-making. In certain fields—in particular, structural policy after the reforms of 1988—this role became increasingly formalized, leading to the coining of the term ‘multilevel governance’ (Marks 1993).

At the same time, governance within EU member states came under pressure, increasing the salience of local and regional actors within new policy paradigms. Patterns of governance within the member states were being recalibrated in ways that upgraded the significance of sub-state governments. Globalization was felt, in some circles, to make redundant traditional forms of economic policy intervention by central governments, and to require more differentiated economic strategies tailored to local and regional strengths. In some member states, movements for regional autonomy (re-)emerged to prominence. In each case, the result was a growing capacity among regional and local governments to engage in policy-making processes, at both the domestic and the European levels. In other words, the new multilevel governance emerged from the convergence of new trends of sub-state political mobilization launched from both above and below. From the ‘bottom up’, strong regions were putting pressure on their national governments to secure a stronger and more direct foothold in the policy process of the EU; from the top down, the functional rationale supporting a regional committee—‘to improve the poor implementation of regional p. 382policy by member states by involving other stakeholders in its design and execution’ (Warleigh 1999: 10)—was essentially the same technocratic impulse that had earlier argued for the inclusion of the economic expertise of interest groups, via the EESC, into economic policy.

Many of the reasons given for the CoR’s lacklustre performance on the EU institutional scene following the hype that surrounded its creation were attributed by commentators to the original institutional design and its flaws. In the eventual compromise that secured its creation by the Maastricht Treaty, those championing a third level of European decision-making had had to give way to a watered-down format that saw local mayors and councillors sit alongside the presidents of powerful and economically important regions and historic nations. But this compromise also reflected a strategic political decision: that powerful sets of interests in Europe did not wish to see the CoR, or the sub-state level more broadly, develop into genuinely influential policy actors.

In the initial days of its operation, the CoR, with only a consultative role to play, depended for a large extent on its relations with the Commission, the Council, and the EP for its formal relevance (Domorenok 2009: 146). The instability of this institutional position was aggravated further by the decision to make the Committee a representative vehicle for all subnational territorial interests from the member states, seating presidents of the German Länder or Spanish Communidades Autonomas alongside town councillors from municipalities with around 250 residents. Common positions on policy issues were difficult to establish given the diverse sets of interests represented in the CoR.

These internal divisions threatened to tear apart the newly created consultative body. Instead, they served merely to weaken the body’s potential as a significant actor in EU affairs. Its most powerful actors, and the collective power that they could wield in cooperation with a coalition of regional interests from other member states, chose rather to pursue their interests in alternative venues. The most powerful sub-state actors simply bypassed the CoR as a force for interest representation and instead acted through more direct channels in Brussels, such as their own permanent representations in the city (Rowe 2011), or through coalitions of similar, powerful regional actors, such as the Conference of Presidents of Regions with Legislative Power (RegLeg), the political network of EU regions with legislative competences.

The overall effect was to marginalize the CoR, pushing it to the fringes of EU policy debates. Clearly, the EESC and the CoR are not the only routes available through which social and regional interests can bring their concerns to bear in Europe, and the range of alternative vehicles for interest representation has expanded greatly since the two advisory bodies were established. Both interest groups and regional and local authorities routinely use alternative routes to access EU decision-making. These alternative routes offer, for some at least, greater returns than working through the EESC or CoR alone and are logically given preference, impacting on both the credibility and the function and operation of both organizations.

p. 383The function and operation of the EESC and CoR

Both the CoR and EESC have formal roles as ‘consultative committees’. The CoR was established in the model of the EESC, which pre-dated it by almost forty years. Yet both the EESC and the CoR have developed an operational remit today that takes them slightly beyond the scope of their original purpose. Because their Treaty positions were circumscribed in vague terms, both the EESC and the CoR have made use of their limited degree of institutional leeway to carve out a position of some authority within shifting patterns of EU governance.

Formal powers

The EESC was not generously endowed at the outset. The 1957 Rome Treaty provided for mandatory consultation of the Committee by both the Council and the Commission, in certain specified fields, and optional consultation in other areas in which the institutions considered such consultation appropriate (see Box 16.1). The Amsterdam Treaty also opened up the possibility for the EESC to be consulted by the EP, although this happens only rarely. The list of areas in which consultation is mandatory has expanded over time, in particular since the SEA. It includes agriculture, the free movement of labour, internal market issues, economic and social cohesion, social policy, regional policy, the environment, research and technological development, employment policy, equal opportunities, and public health. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty expanded the policy areas in which the EESC must be consulted to cover sports policy, European space policy, and energy. Optional consultation allows the EESC to be consulted where the Council, Commission, or EP ‘consider it appropriate’, and can thus cover any other aspect of the Treaties.2 Crucially, the right to give opinions does not extend to a right to have those opinions heard: neither the Commission nor the Council, nor indeed the EP, is obliged to give any feedback on EESC opinions, let alone to take them into account.p. 384

Box 16.1 EU policy fields in which EESC consultation is mandatory

Agricultural policy

Free movement of persons and services

Transport policy

Harmonization of indirect taxation

Approximation of laws on the internal market

Employment policy

Social policy, education, vocational training and youth

Public health

Consumer protection

Trans-European networks

Industrial policy

Economic, social and territorial cohesion

Research and technological development and space

The environment

The 2001 Nice Treaty established a new category of members to the EESC—namely, consumers. Thus the EESC’s representative focus was considerably broadened. Consumers legitimately could be considered to constitute the most significant organized civil society representatives across the EU.

The CoR was initially given more or less the same set of powers as the EESC, although the range of policy areas on which the EU institutions were obliged to consult the CoR was smaller than that of the EESC (see Box 16.2). Mandatory referrals naturally covered a rather different group of policy fields, reflecting the CoR’s local and regional remit. The initial fields for mandatory consultation related to education, training, and youth, economic and social cohesion, the structural funds, trans-European networks, public health, and culture. These have been extended incrementally through Treaty revision, and now cover aspects of employment policy, social policy, and the environment, with the Lisbon Treaty also allowing for mandatory consultation on energy and climate change policy.

Box 16.2 EU policy fields in which CoR consultation is mandatory



Social policy

Education, vocational training, youth, and sport


Public health

Trans-European networks

Economic, social, and territorial cohesion

Environment and climate change


p. 385The CoR is informed when the EESC is being consulted on legislative proposals. In cases in which it considers that specific regional interests are involved, it may also issue an opinion on the matter. This provision essentially extends the fields of mandatory consultation of the CoR to match those of the EESC, particularly in issues concerning agriculture.

The CoR also has the possibility to draft ‘own initiative’ opinions in areas of concern that are not covered by the list of policy fields for mandatory consultation. This right was granted to the CoR on its inception. In contrast, the EESC had to wait thirty-five years, until the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, to be afforded such an opportunity (Warleigh 1999: 20).

Composition of the EESC

The memberships of the EESC and the CoR have always mirrored each other, and continue to do so. Following the accession of Croatia in 2013, both had 350 members, with membership distributed according to the size of the member state. Thus France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom (UK)—pre-Brexit—each have the largest national delegations to each body, with twenty-four members each, whilst Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Malta have the smallest delegations, made up of only five members each (see Box 16.3).3

The EESC was established to provide for a permanent dialogue between the principal social and economic actors in Europe, and those groupings have not changed dramatically since the body’s inception in 1957. The original EESC brought together members from national socio-economic organizations, divided into three groups: Group I, employers’ organizations (the ‘employers’ group’); Group II, trade unions

Box 16.3 National memberships of the EESC and CoR


Number of seats

France, Germany, Italy, UK*


Poland, Spain




Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden


Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia


Latvia, Slovenia




Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta


* Prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU

p. 386(the ‘workers’ group’); and Group III, ‘various interests’ (that is, actors who did not fall naturally into either of the other group categories and who were drawn from a broad range of civil society groupings). This last section tends to cover fields such as the social economy, consumer and environmental organizations, agricultural organizations, groups representing small business, and so on. The groups (I, II, III) function largely along the lines of the political groups found in the EP or the CoR. Their role is principally to discuss the work programme of the EESC and to develop outline positions on proposals ahead of full consideration in plenary sessions. Since 2010, members have been appointed for a five-year term, aligning the EESC with the norm in the EU institutions.

The sections of the EESC are where the bread-and-butter work is carried out. In this way, they are similar to the thematic commissions of the CoR or the committees of the EP: they undertake full analysis of policy proposals from the EU institutions, and draft opinions and recommendations. Within the EESC, the sections (rather than political groups, as elsewhere) appoint an individual as rapporteur on a proposal, whose job it is to guide the process of drafting the opinion on that issue.

Each section is made up of a membership that cross-cuts group membership. At present, there are six thematic sections, each responsible for a set of policy areas. Because the sections draw in members from all three of the groups within the EESC, it is here that the ‘social dialogue’ between workers and employers, which is at the core of the EESC’s remit, is technically facilitated.

Beyond these formal subject committees, the EESC also sets up ad hoc groups to consider broader issues of thematic concern. For example, it has launched a Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI), three ‘observatories’ that monitor the single market, the labour market, and sustainable development in the EU, and a steering committee on the Europe 2020 strategy for sustainable growth. All act as advisory committees, and produce reports for wider consideration within the EU institutions and the decision-making process at large. Plenary meetings are held over a two-day period, around ten times per year, and take place in the EP’s Brussels building. The agendas of plenary sessions tend to focus on the consideration of reports and the adoption of opinions.

Composition of the CoR

Members of the CoR are appointed by national governments, who propose lists of members to the Council for adoption (see Box 16.4). At the point of its creation, there was no obligation for members appointed to the CoR to be elected representatives in their home regional or local authority. However, most member states developed an informal system for delegation that demanded some position of elected authority, and in those countries with clearly defined political regions, at least half of the CoR seats were allocated to regional politicians (Nugent 2010: 231).p. 387

Box 16.4 French members of the EESC

The twenty-four French members of the EESC at the time of writing are drawn from organized groups in France that represent the three pillars of the EESC’s representation: employers, workers, and ‘various interests’ (this last loosely covering other types of socio-economic interest group). At the time of writing, these include those listed in Table 16.1.

Table 16.1 French members of the EESC


Professional affiliation

EESC group membership

Emmanuelle Butaud-Stubbs

Delegate-General, Union of Textile Industries

Group I (Employers)

Laure Batut

Member of the International and European Affairs Department, General Confederation of Labour—Workers’ Power

Group II (Workers)

Christiane Basset

Vice-President of the National Union of Family Associations (UNAF)

Group III (Various Interests)

As in the EP, policy proposals are considered in detail in subject committees, known within the CoR as ‘commissions’. Membership of each commission cross-cuts national and party affiliations. The CoR currently operates on the basis of six thematic subject committees, each of which considers policy proposals in a certain sphere of activity (see Box 16.5). Again, they are referred to internally by an acronym.

Box 16.5 Commissions of the CoR

Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs (CIVEX)

Commission for Territorial Cohesion Policy and EU Budget (COTER)

Commission for Economic Policy (ECON)

Commission for Environment, Climate Change and Energy (ENVE)

Commission for Natural Resources (NAT)

Commission for Social Policy, Education, Employment, Research and Culture (SEDEC)

Internally, at an organizational level, successive restructuring procedures have seen the CoR be reshaped to take on a more politicized role than that originally p. 388envisaged for it. Since 2006, the CoR has begun to approximate the political procedures of the EP, being organized internally on the basis of political groups. Between them, these political groups share out the lead roles on opinion drafting and appointing the rapporteurs for each issue on the basis of a size-related points system, as is done in the EP. The establishment of strong political groups as the basis of administration within the CoR has largely superseded the position of national delegations to the CoR. It has also facilitated stronger ties between the CoR and EP, particularly on the drafting of opinions. Overall, then, the internal organization of the CoR has become increasingly sophisticated to reflect the growing scope of its work (Schönlau 2008: 20).

Members of the CoR (see Box 16.6) are organized into five political groups at the time of writing, mirroring the largest groups in the EP, alongside a small subset of non-aligned members. Four of these political groups are familiar from the EP: liberals (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, or ALDE); socialists (Party of European Socialists, or PES); centre-Right (European People’s Party, or EPP); and the more right of centre European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). The CoR also has a fifth group, known as the European Alliance (EA), which comprises an ad hoc mixture of independents, greens, and minority nationalists. There are significantly fewer political groups in the CoR than in the EP because the national systems of delegating members to the CoR introduces something of an automatic filtering process. As of 2016, the EPP was the largest political grouping within the CoR, with 129 members; the PES, 120; the ALDE group, 39; the ECR, 16; and the European Alliance, 21 (see Chapter 15).

Box 16.6 French members of the CoR

The French delegation to the CoR consists of twenty-four members and an equal number of alternates. The current distribution of seats, both for members and alternates, is listed in Table 16.2.

Table 16.2 French members of the CoR

French delegation












Members of this delegation are proposed by the Association of French Regions (Association des Régions de France), the Assembly of French Departments (Assemblée des Départements de France) and the Association of French Mayors (Association des Maires de France), and appointed by the French prime minister.

p. 389Leadership of the EESC

At a planning and operational level, the EESC is guided by a managerial bureau. The bureau is made up of thirty-six members, along with the President and two Vice-Presidents. The President has oversight for the political work of the EESC and is largely responsible for providing the guidelines for that work. The President is also the figure responsible for the external representation of the Committee, interacting with the other institutions on the Committee’s behalf, as well as member states and other bodies.

The Vice-Presidents support and assist the President in their roles. Vice-presidential positions are held by members of the two groups that do not hold the presidency. The distribution of functions within the bureau, sections, and any study groups that are established always strives to strike a balance between the three groups (Smismans 2000). The President, two Vice-Presidents, and the members of the bureau itself are elected on a two-yearly basis, and take-up of the position rotates between the three groups. The other members include the president of each of the functional sections and each of the representative groups.

Leadership of the CoR

The organizational structure of the CoR is very similar to that of the EESC. At a political level, the CoR is managed by a bureau, constituted, as of 2016, by sixty members of the Assembly. The President, elected for a two-and-a-half-year term of office since Lisbon, is supported by a First Vice-President and one Vice-President from each of the member states. Alongside these members, there are then four chairs of the political groups represented within the CoR. Finally, the bureau is supported by twenty-seven further ordinary members of the CoR. Overall, the composition of the bureau reflects the national and political balances within the CoR.

The bureau then meets around seven times per year to manage planning functions, such as the agendas for plenary sessions, to draw up the CoR’s policy programme, to allocate opinions to the various subject commissions, and to decide when to draft own-initiative opinions. The CoR holds fewer plenary sessions than the EESC: around five per year. Like EESC plenaries, however, full sessions of the CoR are also held in the EP premises in Brussels.

The EESC in practice

Despite the limited power that it had been given, there were confident expectations in the EESC that its ‘accumulated expertise would be valued and exploited by the EC’s institutions’ and that it would be able to develop a representative role as a ‘mediator on behalf of national economic and social interests vis-à-vis the Commission p. 390and the Council of Ministers’ (Lodge and Herman 1980: 269). Neither expectation was fulfilled. For the Council of Ministers, the EESC was a body to be regarded with scepticism and disdain. Its output was regarded, for the most part, as simply reinforcing the supranational agenda of the European Commission and thus was prone to run up against the buffers of intergovernmentalism. As such, the EESC remains on the fringes of the European policy debate, with a limited impact on decisions. It has effectively been relegated to the status of yet another EU lobby group, struggling to compete with other consultative bodies and organized interests in Brussels.

Nonetheless, it has had its successes and these have been widely championed. For example, an EESC report on a Community charter of basic social rights formed the basis of the Commission’s proposals on the Social Charter that were accepted at the Strasbourg summit in 1989. This episode marked the first time in its history that the EESC had been able to set the agenda decisively and before the usual decision-making process had begun. Building on this achievement, the EESC was an early proponent on the issue of fundamental rights in the EU. It continues to hold this example up as its key area of influence in the European sphere across all of its marketing literature; the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EESC claims, was largely the outcome of its own internal debates and subsequent opinion on the issue of fundamental rights.

Largely in recognition of its increasing marginalization and in view also of the source of its one true success, the EESC leadership in the 1990s began to shift towards presenting itself and its own role in the EU slightly differently, as a leading representative of European civil society. Throughout the 1990s, the European Commission began to engage more systematically with civil society organizations (CSOs) in policy fields such as environmental and development policy. This mode of interaction was perceived as a legitimizing force for the Commission. It subsequently developed a new normative discourse on the role of these organizations, coining the concept of ‘civil dialogue’ in 1996 to plead for increased interaction with CSOs (Smismans 2003: 484).

It was at this point that the EESC began to stress the value that it could add to this concept of a European civil dialogue, based on the strength of its own cross-national, multi-sectoral composition. Subsequent presidencies of the EESC began to give priority to the so-called Citizen’s Europe initiative, organizing hearings that, it was claimed, gave voice to the real aspirations of the European citizens. This approach faltered, however, given the badly focused and top-down character of the hearings (Smismans 1999: 557). Nonetheless, the EESC’s new focus on civil society persevered. By the late 1990s, the EESC began to tagline itself as the ‘forum of organized civil society’. Since 2003, the former Economic and Social Committee (ESC), referred to informally as ‘Ecosoc’, has called itself the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), largely to help to differentiate it from the numerous economic and social committees that operate in the member states.

The EESC’s current leadership regards the role of the Committee as threefold, with its status as a civil society representative body at the heart of its mission. First, the p. 391EESC aims to ensure that European policies and legislation better reflect economic, social, and civic concerns, by drawing on the knowledge and expertise of its members. Second, its leaders argue that its existence and operation helps to promote a ‘more participatory EU’, given that it acts as ‘organized civil society’s institutional forum’. Finally, the EESC presents itself as advancing the role of CSOs and participatory democracy in Europe.4 National economic and social councils exist in twenty-two of the EU’s member states, and these bodies are core partners for the EESC, providing a network for their activities and a range of contacts with whom the EESC’s own committees and consultative bodies interact.

Despite its composition, the EESC does not operate as an expert body within the institutional configuration of the EU, undertaking rather a more representative role. The opinions that the EESC prepares are by no means merely technical; rather, they reflect compromises between the EU’s principal socio-economic actors. These compromises are not political ones, such as those found elsewhere in the formal decision-making process and even internally within the CoR, the EESC’s ‘sister’ institution. Their real added value comes from the fact that they are instead driven by a consensus-finding process amongst the leading socio-economic actors in an EU policy area, which can itself be useful (Hönnige and Panke 2013). But it is from its status as the formal locus of organized interests in the single market that the Committee continues to derive its own self-image, even if stakeholders within other institutions might prefer greater technical expertise to be reflected in their opinions.

The CoR in practice

The initial output of the CoR was deemed to be of little added value for the general policy-making process of the Community, underpinning further a sense of marginalization. Its opinions were widely regarded as bland, of low quality, and ‘invariably call[ing] for an increased sub-national participation in the EU policy-making process, but little else’ (Farrows and McCarthy 1997: 26). Some major improvements have been noted over time, however. The majority of opinions produced are delivered today on the basis of either mandatory or optional inter-institutional consultations, rather than as a result of own-initiative proposals from the CoR itself (Domorenok 2009: 152). This practice has helped to achieve a degree of focus in the output of the CoR, with an increased emphasis on delivering advice where its expertise would be welcomed.

The CoR’s confused birth gave rise to a situation of ambiguity in which it was not exactly clear what it was really for. However, successive Treaty revisions and a process of internal reordering have subtly altered the role and status of the CoR, allowing the body to define its objectives more clearly. The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty extended its remit to cover legislation in around two-thirds of the EU’s policy fields. But it was the 2001 Treaty of Nice that really marked a qualitative step forward in the p. 392status of the CoR, with the inclusion of a new provision that CoR members should hold some form of electoral accountability in their home localities. The Committee was thus to consist of ‘representatives of regional and local bodies who either hold a regional or local authority electoral mandate or are politically accountable to an elected assembly’.5

The ratification and entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 finally delivered one of the CoR’s core objectives: securing its right to defend its own prerogatives before the Court of Justice of the EU. Of equal note is the right, also enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, for the CoR to bring actions before the Court in cases in which it views legislation as having breached the principle of subsidiarity, effectively turning the CoR into the EU’s subsidiarity ‘watchdog’. This move, on its own, was viewed as a hugely significant advance by the CoR’s supporters. Not only did it fulfil, fifteen years after its inception, one of the CoR’s longest-standing aims, but it also finally elevated the CoR above the status of the EESC. Further, the EU definition of the subsidiarity principle has, since Lisbon, explicitly contained a reference to the local and regional dimensions of EU politics and policies. This emphasis has further strengthened the CoR leadership’s approach to subsidiarity and increased the institution’s political action in the realm of subsidiarity. For instance, the subsidiarity monitoring network allows for an enhanced and early focus on political dossiers that are considered relevant in terms of subsidiarity.

In line with this more powerful role as the subsidiarity watchdog for the EU, the CoR has, since 2009, participated in the assessment of the territorial impact made by certain legislative proposals put forward by the European Commission. The effect has been to give the CoR enhanced capacity to shape and influence EU decision-making during the pre-legislative phase.

The Lisbon Treaty also provided for further changes that were perceived as having strengthened the CoR and its role in the European legislative process. First, the Treaty increased its members’ term of office from four to five years, bringing the CoR in line with other EU institutions—notably, the EP and the Commission. In addition, the Lisbon Treaty saw a widening of the CoR’s area of consultation to include new policy areas: energy and climate change. Consultation rights were also strengthened, so that the CoR can now be consulted by the EP, as well as by the Commission and Council of Ministers, in the areas of common concern set out by the EU Treaties.

At a more abstract level, the Lisbon Treaty wrote into law the fundamental objective of ‘territorial cohesion’ in the EU. This shift marked a further step change for the CoR’s inter-institutional relations, as it continues to promote territorial cohesion through its own work and operation. In a separate move that articulates this objective more precisely, the Treaty on European Union (TEU) was revised to enshrine the right to local and regional self-government in EU law.6

However, it is at the level of internal organization that the primary change has taken place over the course of the CoR’s existence. Observers feared at the outset that internal divisions within the CoR—northern versus southern European regions; strong p. 393versus weak; rich versus poor; and so on—would prevent the new body from developing a clear sense of purpose. Yet while these internal disparities have encouraged the stronger, constitutionally empowered regions at the very least to prioritize alternative channels of interest mediation in the EU, dividing lines have not proven as destructive as was first feared. Indeed, despite all of these obvious lines of conflict that the CoR’s original template design established, they have today been replaced by real lines of conflict between the sets of actors who strive to achieve influence within the body: the political groups and the national delegations (Hönnige and Kaiser 2003).

The CoR’s original institutional composition did not include political groups. As an advisory body, it established national delegations to represent territorial interests on a member state by member state basis. On that model, the two most important organizational structures were the national delegations and thematic commissions. However, over the years, the operation of the CoR and its leaderships have seen the body evolve in a more ‘politicized’ direction, with lines of conflict opening up between the interests of party groups, along much the same lines as party groups within the EP. Today, the party groups are the most significant structures within the CoR, a development that few expected (Christiansen 1996). This development has had a substantial impact on inter-institutional relations: the operation of the main party groupings within both the CoR and the EP has inevitably led to closer links between these two bodies than with either the Commission or the Council of Ministers. Through contacts at the level of secretariats and individual rapporteurs, the political groups try to bring the positions of the institutions closer together and thereby to increase the chance that the consultative output of the CoR is taken into account in the wider EU decision-making process.

In terms of impact, it is difficult for the CoR to improve on its engagement with the principal decision-making institutions of the EU (Commission, Council, EP), given that its opinions are generally sent only by internal post. There is no formal mechanism in place for follow-up discussions nor for feedback from the decision-making institutions themselves. In recognition of this shortcoming, targeted steps have been taken to secure greater impact in the policy process. For example, on any opinion produced, a core set of the recommendations that it entails are now also printed on the outside, so that even if the opinion itself is not widely read, its overall message can have some potential impact on the desk of whichever official to whom it is sent. This change may seem minor, but it is a significant one.

Of even more significance is the degree to which links with the European Commission, the most important champion and partner of the CoR since its inception, have incrementally been strengthened. There is an upward exchange of staff between the two, with many Commission officials having spent several years in the CoR, giving them a sensitivity to the CoR’s outputs that is missing from interaction with the EP, for instance. The incumbent secretary-general, the highest-ranking position in the secretariat of the CoR, for instance, is a former Commission official. Further, on average, two Commissioners now attend each of the CoR’s plenary sessions and the Commission President takes part in at least one each year. In addition, the use of p. 394non-mandatory referrals by the European Commission to the CoR has also risen sharply (Schönlau 2008: 23).

The EESC and the CoR in context

Evidently, both the EESC and the CoR have developed their roles within the institutional architecture of the EU in ways that go beyond the initial activity foreseen for them at the moment of their founding. Their operation and functions today show that these bodies have adapted to the changing nature of European governance, and demonstrate how they have sought to carve out roles for themselves, whilst continuing to face calls for their closure. Dissenting views on the value added of both organizations, the CoR and EESC alike, are not uncommon and periodically make headline news. For example, in 2011, in its position paper on the new EU budget post-2013, the (liberal) ALDE group of the EP called for both a radical shake-up of the CoR and possible abolition of the EESC (ALDE 2011).

Against this background of constant debate about their legitimacy, both the CoR and the EESC have increasingly bought into the narrative of ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘input legitimacy’ within the EU (Schmidt 2013). Both have sought to maximize their civil society and grass-roots connections as an entry ticket to wider policy negotiations. Their representative structures, both bodies claim, facilitate better connections between Europe’s decision-makers and citizens; this claim underpins their argument for greater status as policy actors in the institutional framework of the EU. Some commentators continue to argue that the EESC and the CoR are important only at a symbolic level, in that it is useful for the EU to recognize the territorial disparity of its member states through a formal committee that discusses regional and local perspectives on policy. Others suggest that both bodies do have a legitimate role to play in European decision-making, largely on account of their representative characters (Smismans 2000). These views stress that it does add something to the legitimacy of the European policy process if the decision-making system incorporates a formalized, permanent committee of economic and social interests (Schönlau 2008).

Since the early 1990s, the concept of a European civil society, broadly defined, has become common currency within the EU’s discourse, yet (unsurprisingly perhaps) some institutions and bodies have held on more firmly to these notions than others. For the Commission, the normative dialogue on stronger engagement with civil society actors in social policy decisions has gradually spread to all of its Directorates-General (DGs), and forms the basis of its policy on interaction with external representatives (Smismans 2003). For the EESC and, to a lesser degree, the CoR, the growing notion of a civil dialogue allowed them to reinforce their strategies to gain a stronger voice in European affairs, by emphasizing their connection to grass-roots concerns in the member states, both with regard to social and economic partners, p. 395and to local and regional authorities. In light of this new approach, the EESC began to present itself more forcefully as an institutional expression of the organizations making up civil society. In fact, the EESC currently markets itself with the strapline ‘a bridge between Europe and organized civil society’.7 It emphasizes that its operation helps to strengthen the EU’s democratic legitimacy and effectiveness by enabling CSOs from the member states to express their views at the European level. But the Committee’s focus is not restricted to the EU member states: like the CoR, the EESC has an active external relations agenda. It engages in civil society dialogue such as round tables with Brazil, China, and India, and connects regularly with civil society groups in the European neighbourhood, all carried out under an annual operational budget of around €120 million per year.

In more general terms, both organizations emphasize the validity of their engagement with the community outside the Brussels ‘loop’. That community extends to European civil society, and local and regional authorities.

Again, beyond its original remit as an advisory body, the CoR has developed a profile as a facilitator of regional engagement, leading on particular issues of note and championing certain objectives that it selects, in cooperation with various other regional stakeholders. Chief amongst the new activities that embrace wider regional support in Brussels are regular forums on thematic issues such as communications, transport policy, and social innovation, the Europe 2020 monitoring platform, and a subsidiarity monitoring network. It also extends to the annual open days hosted in Brussels, and a series of workshops and seminars under a general theme with a regional and local angle organized by both the Commission and the CoR in Brussels. These interactions with the large community of so-called local and regional stakeholders in Brussels—regional representations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), city government officials, associations of regions with shared sectoral concerns, and so on—comes in addition to the regularized interactions between the CoR and its stakeholder community in Brussels, through the more formalized system of ‘structured dialogue’—that is, regularized interaction on thematic points of mutual concern.

A final issue to note is the CoR’s increasing engagement not only in the sectoral policy issues and not only with a clear territorial cohesion dimension, but also in the external affairs of the Union. CIVEX in particular has a remit to consider engagement in the EU’s international affairs, for example promoting the development of decentralized cooperation globally. A clear marker of the growing international ambitions of the CoR is its role in establishing the Euro–Mediterranean Assembly of Local and Regional Authorities (known more commonly by its French acronym ARLEM), providing a local and regional dimension to the EU’s ongoing integration efforts in the Euro–Med area. It exists alongside a similar assembly for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) countries, known as the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP). The ongoing political crises in both these regions have sustained the CoR’s remit to extend further its activities in the EU’s external relations—a role not foreseen by the architects of the CoR’s original institutional position.

p. 396All of this activity blurs somewhat the distinction between the CoR’s formally prescribed role, as set out in the EU Treaties, and its ambitions—or, more precisely, the ambitions of recent CoR leaderships that have steered the body in this direction. With an increased emphasis on the CoR’s ability to connect disparate groups and promote shared policy agendas through dialogue and discussion, the CoR begins to take on a role as something of a platform rather than an actor in EU affairs. Whilst the networking and collaborative activities do, at times, feed into the more formal work of the CoR—namely, the drafting of opinions—this is not always the case. As such, the CoR’s position in the institutional configuration of the EU remains unclear, whatever the added value of these ‘softer’ activities in the policy sphere may be. All of this ambiguity provides further grist to the mill of those who seek to disband the organization, and fuels the drive within the CoR to outline its own impact through measurable successes and targets delivered. For the member states, the EESC and CoR present no demonstrable cause for concern, other than perhaps the financial implications of their operation, although the EESC and CoR together represent just 2.56 per cent of the EU’s overall administration budget. For this reason, debates surrounding their future have limited salience in national politics—and even less so since the rise in value of ‘civil society’ arguments, or indeed the mood music of delivering ‘real’ subsidiarity, as outlined by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during his 2014 inaugural address to the EP.8 The ‘hands-off’ approach to management of the EESC and CoR has provided both organizations with the scope to develop their roles in new directions since their establishment.

Ultimately, however, each of these organization is only one of a number of channels that social or regional interests can exploit to engage with the European decision-making process. Both share an uncomfortable position on the margins of EU legislative circles. Despite ambitions to shape policy outcomes, both remain restricted and challenged in that aim, largely superseded today by the vast number of ‘civil society’ actors that operate as independent lobbyists in the Brussels arena.

Despite all of this extensive undertaking and the notional high-level nods in support of the CoR’s activities—such as Commission President Barroso being one of the first signatories to the CoR’s European Charter for Multilevel Governance in 2014—there is little evidence to suggest that the CoR is succeeding in its aim to have a fuller impact in the EU policy process. A recent study found only limited evidence of ‘impact’ in any real sense and that impact only if a number of conditions were met: that the CoR produce its own policy recommendations quickly, that the recommendations are of a sufficient quality to be taken seriously, and that the CoR’s recommendations resonate with the addressees’ own prior positions on the issue (Hönnige and Panke 2013: 452). In particular circumstances, principally when policies with a clearly identifiable local and regional impact are being developed, there is evidence to show that the EU’s main decision-making bodies, especially the Commission, do give the CoR’s opinions serious consideration (Carroll 2011). Under other conditions, such as when the Commission already has a clearly focused line on policy proposals or when the dossier has already garnered an EP response before the CoR has p. 397delivered its opinion, the influence of the CoR is likely to be both ‘diffuse and weak’ (Tatham 2008).

Theorizing the EESC and the CoR

Whilst these two consultative committees in the EU policy process remain just that—partners for consultation—rather than centres of any real political authority, it is not unsurprising that academic interest in the work of both the EESC and the CoR does not feature heavily in the scholarly literature on the EU. Neither are ‘institutions’ in the classic sense of empowered decision-making actors. The history of both institutions’ creation has also determined the extent to which theorizing on the EESC and the CoR has remained limited; neither was created on the basis of any real institutional vacuum, but rather to satisfy the demands of various organized actors within the EU—that is, employers, workers and sub-state entities. These actors have endowed, and continue to endow, the EESC and the CoR with a powerful symbolic presence. In a political process that sets out to be consensus-oriented, all EU leaders want to be seen to be taking seriously the interests of producers, employers, workers, and, of course, local and regional authorities. Their symbolic status has also largely insulated the EESC and CoR from the effects of the financial and euro crises that have upset the EU’s own power balance in recent years.

Theorizing on the EU’s consultative committees has therefore been preoccupied with two important questions: why do they exist, and do they really make any difference? Theoretical models have been deployed only on occasion, to explore their coming into being (Warleigh 1999; Carroll 2011) or the development of their role (Domorenok 2009). Most recently, for example, Panke et al. (2015) developed a model constructed from insights drawn from new institutionalist literature. Yet none of these explorations have yielded noteworthy insights or driven forward these models. Hooghe and Marks (2001) and Bache (2008) use the CoR as an element in the construction of theoretical models of ‘multilevel governance’ (MLG), a form of network governance that encompasses multiple interactions between empowered actors (Piatonni 2009; Stephenson 2013). These insights relate to the full range of channels through which sub-state actors across the EU were able to exert influence and engage in the policy-making process.

Notably, early academic excitement about MLG and the construction of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ has waned in scholarly work on the EU (Elias 2008). In fact, the usage of the term has become so commonplace and so widely applied that it is at risk of becoming a useful descriptor that is applicable across all manner of governance contexts, ultimately referring to different things in different arenas (Stephenson 2013). Within the EU, the CoR has become an initiator and driver itself of reflection on MLG in its original conceptualization, although it is a poorly disguised shorthand for an argument in favour of greater powers for itself. With a sizeable research budget p. 398at its disposal, in recent years the CoR has financed scholarly research on both MLG as a governing concept and its applicability in the context of the CoR’s own role, using this terminology to design a hypothetical framework for fuller political engagement in the EU’s policy process (CoR 2012). As such, the CoR has cultivated a role for itself as something of a ‘champion of the cause’ for scholarship on MLG, latching onto this as a route by which the body itself might potentially gain greater political impact. Whilst the CoR still promotes its ability to legitimize EU decision-making through its role as the collective voice of those governments ‘closest to the people’, there is an ongoing parallel agenda for legitimacy-building through the development of the theoretical dimension of a system of governance whereby the CoR could envisage a much greater role than is currently the case in practice.

This agenda has informed much of the policy output of the CoR on MLG and shaped a number of practical initiatives. Building further on a 2009 White Paper on Multilevel Governance, in 2011 the CoR presented an Opinion Paper on Building a European Culture of Multilevel Governance, which outlined concrete steps for achieving rather ambitious aims such as a renewal of the Community method, based on ‘a more inclusive process and the establishment of multilevel governance’.9 This paper set out plans for a ‘scoreboard’ on MLG, aimed at measuring the extent to which its main principles have been taken into account. The initiative was launched with enthusiasm in 2011, although its outputs waned subsequently. The scoreboard was then followed by an EU Charter for Multilevel Governance in Europe, published in 2014, which aims to garner support through a drive to secure signatories who demonstrate their political commitment to MLG by signing. Most recently, the CoR has produced grand publications on identifying ‘best practice’ in the implementation of MLG across the EU’s suite of policy fields.10

The CoR has therefore worked to instrumentalize the concept of MLG as a very politicized objective of securing greater influence both for itself, and for local and regional actors in the EU within the EU’s policy process.11 Its agenda does not extend to achieving further influence for its sister institution, the EESC. But whilst MLG was first conceptualized simply as an academic frame for capturing the reality of complex governing interactions across multiple arenas and, as such, retains the character of a theoretical perspective rather than a fully fledged theory, the CoR is promoting the notion of MLG as a political objective and a marker of ‘good governance’.


The EESC and the CoR have developed roles in practice that deviate somewhat from the visions held by the initial supporters and champions of their creation. Neither has moved to take on a stronger formal position as a codecision-maker in the European legislative process. But both have cultivated niche roles that anchor them firmly in the policy circles that feed into the wider processes of thinking on European issues and which ultimately launch new policy agendas. Both retain important symbolic p. 399functions at the EU level, and have sought to maximize the opportunities afforded to them through debates on European governance, civil-society dialogue, and MLG.

Neither organization has stood still since its creation; rather, each has sought actively to secure some form of engagement in the European policy process that is appropriate to its membership and representative focus. The question remains, however: what is their added value in an open policy process with a burgeoning private lobbying sector and new groups of collective interests emerging all of the time? This question continues to raise the notion of ‘impact’ as a driver of the activities of both the EESC and CoR, even if that impact is difficult to categorize and even more slippery to pin down.

Nonetheless, both the EESC and CoR have managed to cultivate an approach to engagement in European policy issues that has some wider resonance in the stakeholder community. Both organizations have scope to develop new activities and even roles, thanks largely to the ‘hands-off’ approach to their management taken by national governments. Both have, on occasion, managed to shape policy outcomes in their favour. This influence does suggest some degree of dynamism inherent to both organizations that should secure their future in an increasingly complex system of EU governance.

Further reading

There are few systematic investigations of either the EESC or CoR on their own; most studies put these bodies into comparative perspective or address them within the context of investigations into the nature of European governance. The analysis presented by Warleigh (1999) p. 400of the CoR is a useful starting point for understanding the body itself. Smismans (2000) provides an equally insightful starting point for analysis of the EESC. Hooghe and Marks (2001) locate the emergence of the CoR within a broader, comparative investigation of emergent patterns of multilevel governance in the EU, and Stephenson (2013) offers a comprehensive overview of how that concept has been taken forward in a number of different analytical directions. Jeffery (2000) offers some insights into the impact of increased regional representation on European governance. Rowe (2011) considers the tensions that promote regional engagement in Brussels, both through the CoR and through alternative channels of representation. Greenwood’s (2011) study of more contemporary lobbying in the EU helps to clarify the nature of the interest mediation carried out by both the EESC and the CoR. A most helpful analysis of the contemporary role played by both the EESC and the CoR is found in a recent study by Panke et al. (2015).

Greenwood, J. (2011) Interest Representation in the European Union (3rd edn, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Hooghe, L., and Marks, G. (2001) Multi-Level Governance and European Integration (Oxford and Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Jeffery, C. (2000) ‘Sub-national mobilization and European integration: Does it make any difference?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 38/1: 1–23.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Panke, D., Hönnig, C., and Gollub, J. (2015) Consultative Committees in the European Union: No Vote—No Influence? (Colchester: ECPR Press).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Rowe, C. (2011) Regional Representations in the EU: Between Diplomacy and Interest Representation (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Smismans, S. (2000) ‘The European Economic and Social Committee: Towards deliberative democracy via a functional assembly’, European Integration Online Papers (EIoP), 4/12.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Stephenson, P. (2013) ‘Twenty years of multi-level governance: Where does it come from? What is it? Where is it going?’, Journal of European Public Policy, 20/6: 817–37.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Warleigh, A. (1999) The Committee of the Regions: Institutionalising Multi-Level Governance? (London: Kogan Page).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Web Links

Full information on the activities of the EESC and the CoR can be obtained from their respective websites.


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