Among all the prestigious buildings in Brussels, and the MEPs, the functionaries, the journalists and the lobbyists, European citizens should have their own space.
That is the idea behind the new “European Civil Society House” (ECSH). Intended to have both a physical and virtual space, the suggested Brussels ‘house’ should offer EU and civil-society liaison facilities to a wide range of NGOs, citizens’ groups and individual citizens.
The ECSH will be occupied by a group of European associations active in the areas of human rights, civil society development and citizen participation. This group should seek to share not only the common facilities, but also their know-how, skills and resources.
The house is intended to provide face-to-face as well as online help for associations and individual citizens. The main function will be that of interlocutor between the EU and citizens seeking to enforce their European rights or make their voice heard within the EU through petitions, citizens’ initiatives or Europe-wide participatory democracy. It should also have space reserved for national NGOs visiting Brussels, or seeking temporary office space.
The project, being organised by ECAS, is intended to not only benefit citizens but also help resolve the problem of the democratic deficit in the longer term. Raising citizen awareness should help bring about more participation in the decision-making processes of the EU, thus bringing citizens and the EU institutions closer together.
The aim is to set up the house within three years, subject to agreement for funding support from both the European Parliament and the Commission.
Three founding principles have been developed:
Supporting civil society
A steering group of foundations and European associations in the areas of human rights, civil liberties, NGO development and active citizenship should be able to share common facilities. There would be office space and desks for national organisations visiting Brussels. The help desks for NGOs can be extended to provide assistance to citizens.
Practical aid for citizens’ rights
ECAS will be able to provide multilingual advice to plaintiffs and petitioners, and above all then follow them up. The aim is to achieve better enforcement of European rights for European citizens and third country nationals, and reduce the gap between the fine principles of the Treaties and the case-law of the European Court of Justice and what happens on the ground.
Building civic participation
A space for citizens applies not only to enforcement of existing individual rights, but also to the new collective rights under article 11 of the Lisbon treaty, whereby over 1 million people from a significant number of member states can propose a legislative initiative to the Commission. Once enabling legislation is in place, there will be a need for support for the presenters of initiatives. Similarly, the house should have a role in the conception, carrying out and follow-up to citizens’ consultations and other participatory democracy projects.