Forum M, Buchkremerstraße 1-7, 52062 Aachen
Europe yes, but how? #1
European associations - Enablers for European civil society?
A report by Anissa Bouabsa
The project Europe yes, but how?, funded by the bpb (Federal Agency for Civic Education) had its kick-off on 12.02.2019, in the german border city Aachen. On this occasion, Conny Reuter (Secretary General of SOLIDAR), Martin Unfried (border researcher at the ITEM1 of the University of Maastricht) and Jens Baganz (We are Europe) discussed the potential of a European statute for associations at Forum M in Aachen, moderated by Laura Sofía Salas (European Democracy Lab).
The start was marked by the launch of the campaign Yes, We are European Association - YEA! by We are Europe and a greeting by the Mayor of Aachen, Margrethe Schmeer. Representatives of AEGEE Aachen, Stop Tihange, Orchester der Landesregierung Gesellschaft der griechischen Autoren in Deutschland, Deutsch-Italienische Gesellschaft Düsseldorf and others took part in the subsequent dialogue.
The debate on a European statute for associations has been going on since the early 1980s. While the establishment of European Works Councils (1996) and the societas Europaea (2004) was regarded as a necessity in European politics, it has not yet been possible to enforce a regulation for European associations (cf. Wöffen, 2018). According to Conny Reuter the initial challenge was to define the field of activity of European associations, because as soon as associations generated income (e.g. through tickets at a cultural festival), their activities could be interpreted as profit-oriented and the non-profit status could be denied. Reuter underlined this “fundamental dilemma”. The European Union's birth defect would lie in the antagonism between 'market interests in the sense of [the] internal market' on the one hand and the 'European idea' on the other, he remarks.
From the 2000s onwards, various actors in the European Parliament demanded the procedure for a European law on associations to be resumed and promoted. When the Commission rejected the Parliament's proposal in 2005, 13 NGOs joined together against this decision. A year later, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) reiterated its support for a European statute for transnational associations. In 2011, 39 NGOs signed a "Manifesto for a European Statute for a European Association" in which they called for the necessary steps to be taken to present proposals for a European Statute for Associations. Problems for unanimity included national representatives of associations who opposed the European Statute for Associations, in the opinion that the EU would thus gain increasing influence on the respective national legal situation (cf. Wöffen, 2018).
Reuter took a critical view on the European Commission's strong focus concerning the relevance of the European internal market and explains that issues such as the European association have long since grown into a considerable challenge for civil society. With regard on member states such as Poland, Hungary, Romania and Croatia, it becomes clear that overcoming logistical and political challenges in the implementation of a European law on associations is of central importance for guaranteeing the "right to organisation, freedom of movement to organise [and] express itself".
Martin Unfried researches cross-border issues in the EU, including problems with cross-border activities. According to Unfried, the existing instruments would not be sufficient to favour cross-border organisation. Many factors, such as lobbying, divergences between EU Member States and the lack of unanimity in the Council, would hamper the negotiation process as a social phenomenon. On the other hand, he stressed the argumentative potential in the "emotional aspect" of a European association: "The right to found European associations could contribute to strengthening the self-confidence of European citizens”. The emotional aspect is usually missing in Europe, Jens Baganz agreed. A European association law would not be able to resolve all national divergences, but it would create a basis for a stronger sense of unity, which in turn would strengthen European civil society. For this to succeed, Baganz said, it is necessary to communicate outside the legal subtleties and to formulate the will "as European citizens" more strongly. Conny Reuter agreed: "Before we start an initiative, before we launch citizens' initiatives, we have to take the time to develop a mutual understanding".
To conclude, transnational cooperation and European citizens' initiatives therefore also raise the question of empathy in the discussion, which is clearly declining in times of crisis in Europe. Favouring the right of association in the EU could create new spaces for encounter and civil dialogue, which would enable EU citizens to reappropriate issues in the long term. European citizens' initiatives and associations would thus become a space accessible to the concerns of citizens, creating a participatory advantage in the sense of general political equality and redistributing decision-making processes in Europe.
Wöffen, Tim (2018): European Associations. The Political Debate and Basic Legal Questions. [Version: 18.04.19].
1 Institute for Transnational and Euregional Cross border cooperation and Mobility.