In order to balance the democratic deficit that the European Union has been accused of having, the EU’s Commission has been extensively engaged in the subsidization of civil society. The result: NGOs are non-pluralistic, politically biased in favor of the EU, all while funding remains nontransparent.
A Controversial Report
In March of this year, the European Parliament’s budgetary control committee, under the responsibility of the German center-right rapporteur Markus Pieper, investigated the whole scale of EU-funded lobbyism and the immense grants associated with it. In the year 2015 alone, the EU spent a total €1.2 billion in grants in order to support European NGOs which lobby the EU institutions.
More interesting than the total expenditure is the unequal distribution of these grants. For instance, in the 2015 budget, almost 60 percent of the funding available under the EU’s environmental, social, health, and human rights programs was allocated to just 20 NGOs.
A 2013 Institute for Economic Affairs report came to the conclusion that these grants are often of an existential nature for these organizations. The report’s author, Christopher Snowdon, discovered multiple NGOs that were almost entirely reliant on the EU and justifiably labeled them as “puppets”:
For example, Women in Europe for a Common Future received an EC grant of €1,219,213 in 2011, with a further €135,247 coming from national governments. This statutory funding made up 93 per cent of its total income while private donations contributed €2,441 (0.2 per cent) and member contributions just €825 (0.06 per cent).
NGO-funding also suffers from a systematic ideological bias. The organization NGO Monitor has denounced some EU-funding going to groups engaging in “political warfare” against Israel and called the focus of the funding “disproportionate.” The Pieper report therefore called for the rejection of funding for NGOs who “demonstrably disseminate untruths and/or whose objectives are contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union, democracy, human rights and/or strategic commercial and security policy objectives of the European Union institutions.”
Understandably, the Pieper report was heavily criticised by NGO representatives who are fearing for their government funding.
Nina Katzemich from the German NGO Lobbycontrol slammed the Markus Pieper report as “anti-pluralistic” and added: “To give money to [NGOs] to balance this imbalance … represents a partial approach for the solution of this European democratic deficit.”
Given the unfair distribution and the clearly outlined political bias of these organizations, it can hardly be pluralistic to invest hundreds of millions of euros into this system. The EU’s funding is merely there to foster the political integration of union itself, not to strengthen civil society.
Advocates and Lobbyists
The strange dynamic of politics in the European Union is the double standard of what constitutes lobbyism. While NGO work is considered “advocacy” and largely funded by the European Union, corporate lobbying is demonized all across the board. If you were to protect the interests of the alcohol industry, you’d be labeled as a dangerous lobbyist, but a public health “advocate” could freely speak in favor of reimbursements for certain medication or the banning of different industrial activities. While corporate lobbying is subjected to existing and increasing legislation, NGO funding is largely nontransparent while being similarly subjected to corporatism.
Take the example of anti-tobacco policy advocates.
Anti-tobacco lobbyists recognize that it is highly profitable for companies to retail products designed to help people get off smoking. In May 2016, for example, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in its printed version that the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis had close ties to the German Cancer Research Centre and the anti-tobacco activist group Wissenschaftlichen Aktionskreis Tabakentwöhnung (WAT), which in English means the “Scientific Activist Circle for Giving Up Smoking.” Interest groups such as WAT have called for products and therapies used through Novartis to be reimbursed by the public healthcare system. They have also rejected all scientific research proving that the use of e-cigarettes is an alternative for quitting smoking, even advocating their ban through the federal government. Novartis has also been accused of bribing doctors and pharmacies in South Korea in an effort to convince them to promote the company’s drugs.
There shouldn’t be double standards when it comes to public policy: either all lobbyists are advocates or all advocates are lobbyists. Either way, it stands to reason that it shouldn’t be the role of an immense political entity to fund the activities of one group in favor of another one. Government funding of NGOs is neither pluralistic nor does it actually foster the engagement of civil society.
This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.
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