Compact in action: Towards a European Compact

Sector bodies have been discussing the potential implications of a European agreement.

When the Government gives funding to charities, the terms of the arrangements are subject to the Compact. But no similar agreement exists to protect charities that receive funding from the European Commission, which means bureaucrats in Brussels can withdraw their largesse on a whim, without notice.

To try to prevent this, not-for-profit representative groups across the continent have been holding preliminary talks about developing a European Compact. The UK, which was the first country to get a national Compact in 1998, is at the forefront of the debate, along with Estonia, France and Sweden.

"The next European elections take place in 2009," says Oli Henman, UK and international campaigns manager at umbrella body the NCVO. "That will be a key time to make sure the issue gets on the agenda."

The EC is already edging towards greater recognition of voluntary organisations. Article 8b of the Treaty of Lisbon, which is being drawn up to replace the draft European Constitution, says the commission's institutions "shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society". This would appear to pave the way for a document that sets out how the EC and civil society should behave towards each other.

In Britain, the NCVO, the Commission for the Compact, the Office of the Third Sector and the Foreign Office have been involved in the discussions. But Henman predicts that a European Compact is at least two years away.

If one does emerge, he says, it could either be a single document setting out the relationship between the EC and civil society or a series of measures to strengthen each member state's own Compact.

One of the benefits of a European Compact, he says, would be that it would prevent the UK Government from saying that money it receives from the EC is not subject to Compact guidelines.

"There is a need for greater clarity in the relationship between civil society and Europe," says Henman. "There is wide disparity within the EC in terms of how the different departments relate to civil society.

"The next step is to consolidate with partners in Europe what the key requirements are."

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