The EU has created a multistakeholder group in Georgia to discuss the provisions and implementation of the Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

Ensuring meaningful stakeholder involvement in the EU's external policies

While engagement with stakeholders is an increasingly popular approach to national and international decision-making, the EU needs to exercise greater caution when exporting multistakeholder arrangements to other countries, argues Diana Potjomkina.

Including multiple stakeholders such as civil society is an increasingly popular approach to national and international decision making. Its proponents claim that it can reduce so-called ‘democratic deficit’ and make governance more legitimate, effective, and just. However, formal provisions are not sufficient for achieving meaningful inclusion. They may even contribute to a vicious circle of exclusion. Visible and privileged groups may solidify their positions while the concerns of the more vulnerable ones are relegated to the background. As a result, political justice suffers too.

In essence, multistakeholder mechanisms, which I address in my doctoral research, are arenas where various groups affected by a policy, can gather, exchange views and provide policy recommendations – or even autonomously steer the policies they are affected by. These mechanisms help policy-makers ensure better policy input, improve the quality of deliberation, and ensure more effective implementation. Multistakeholder initiatives have emerged across the globe, locally and internationally, both in private and public governance.

For some international organizations, like the European Union (EU), multistakeholderism not only serves as a popular domestic instrument, but is also exported to the Union’s partners. A case in point is the EU’s free trade agreements, which now include provisions on creating civil society consultative bodies on trade and sustainable development. These bodies must be established both in the EU itself and in its partner countries. Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) have been establised both in the EU and in its partner countries and are multistakeholder bodies that discuss and make recommendations on the implementation of the EU’s free trade agreements.

The expectation is that such a consultative group will contribute to more sustainable and democratic decision-making not only in the EU but also in the partner country. Involving multiple stakeholders could enable more balanced decisions and give a more ‘human face’ to the EU’s trade policy, which is often criticized for being subject to economic interests.

While promotion of multistakeholder mechanisms in foreign contexts is rather mainstream for the EU, at least in the field of trade, there is no guarantee that formal procedures will lead to the intended results. The argument ‘if you build it, they will come’ does not mean that a consultative body will manage to reconcile different interests in a fair way and convey the results to policymakers. Nominal inclusion does not always translate into meaningful inclusion, and as a result, the outcomes of any formally ‘just’ multistakeholder arrangement will not necessarily reflect everyone’s opinions in a fair way.

Moving beyond formal inclusion

There is no academic or policy consensus on how political justice can be achieved. One approach, called justice as mutual recognition, emphasises the need for all stakeholders’ opinions to be considered. Multistakeholder bodies can help to ensure such a ‘due hearing’ for diverse groups. However, in order to be fair, this process must be genuinely inclusive, and this is only possible if the participants address existing structural constraints. Hence, inclusion and justice can be seen as closely interconnected.

Inclusiveness of multistakeholder bodies has so far not gained significant attention in academic scholarship or policy practice. In particular, the exclusion of indirectly affected or less visible groups is often ignored.

Below, I identify three challenges for meaningful inclusion and discuss them with a view the EU’s Domestic Advisory Groups. At the first glance, these groups appear to be inclusive.

DAGs are horizontally inclusive because they include a balanced number of independent and representative business associations, trade unions, and environmental organizations, mirroring the popular definition of sustainable development. They are also vertically inclusive because they have formal access and give recommendations to policy makers. However, a closer analysis shows that these formal provisions are not sufficient for achieving meaningful inclusion.

Who are the relevant stakeholders?

Identifying which groups should be represented in multistakeholder arrangements can be difficult. Not including underprivileged groups would make a multistakeholder arrangement unfair, while not including powerful ones may easily derail it altogether. The DAGs favour larger and more influential organizations, which have the expertise and resources needed to monitor the impact of the free trade agreement. The focus on including businesses, trade unions, and environmental NGOs excludes other stakeholders, such as those working on human rights, education, or rural development. In non-EU countries, DAGs face additional challenges. For instance, in Georgia, no farmers’ associations are represented in the DAG, despite the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement heavily affecting farmers. 52 per cent of the country’s population are employed in agriculture and 98 per cent of them are self-employed. From the viewpoint of justice as mutual recognition, it would be fair to include this group in the DAG.

Overcoming structural inequalities

Multistakeholder bodies do not work in isolation from the structural injustices that exist in the society. Most societies face structural injustices, whereby certain groups have a generally inferior position socially, economically, or culturally. Even if a certain stakeholder is granted access to a multistakeholder body and has equal procedural rights as the other members, there is no guarantee that their opinion will be taken into account.

DAG members do not receive funding from the EU, which consequently gives a benefit to larger and more resourceful organizations. In addition, there is no impartial mediator in the group that can help resolve potential disagreements among different members. As a result, conflicts among DAG members occur, especially in partner countries where cross-sectoral collaboration is less common. Despite vast inequalities among EU member states or regions, geographical balance is not a criterion for selecting DAG members. As a result, most of them come from ‘old’ EU member countries or from the countries’ capital, as in the Georgian case.

Ensuring meaningful access to decision makers

Inclusion is not only horizontal (relations among different groups) but also vertical (relations between stakeholders and policy makers). Even the most horizontally inclusive format will be rather futile if the group has no influence over decision making processes. It is important that stakeholders have access to policy makers both at the local and global level.

However, in partner countries, the direct or indirect policy influence of DAGs remain limited. Furthermore, the European Commission is slow to engage with their requests. Some influential EU and partner country stakeholders that enjoy a more direct access to policymakers, decide not to prioritise the DAGs and address their concerns through other forums.

Exclusion and justice

According to an understanding of justice as mutual recognition, the equitable consideration of different stakeholders’ differing preferences is essential. In line with this viewpoint, it is imperative that stakeholders are meaningfully included in the debate.

Unfortunately, this is often not the reality on the ground. It is common for multistakeholder bodies to exclude vulnerable groups, suffer from structural inequalities, and lack sufficient clout in the broader political system. Ensuring meaningful inclusion remains a challenge even for the European Union. Consequently, the EU needs to exercise more caution when exporting multistakeholder arrangements to other countries, with their own political contexts and inequalities.

About the EU-blog

The EU-blog is an academic commentary emanating from the GLOBUS project coordinated by ARENA Centre for European Studies (University of Oslo).
In this blog we aim to enhance debates and understandings of global justice, in particular the EU’s contribution to justice, by presenting cutting-edge research and competing perspectives from multiple disciplines.
The opinions and arguments presented are exclusively those of the contributors.
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