Partnership principle in EU funds: strong on paper, weak in practice

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The 2021-2027 EU Multiannual Financial Framework was adopted with the commitment to have a more mainstreamed and inclusive approach to the involvement of stakeholders in EU funding programmes management at national level.

EU funds supporting activities in the area of migration, border management, asylum and inclusion (AMIF, BMVI, ISF and ESF+) are bound by a partnership principle laying down an obligation for consultation with relevant actors, from the inception to the implementation of national plans. For the first time, Home Affairs Funds (AMIF, BMVI, ISF) are covered by these rules, in addition to cohesion funds that, since 2014, were already bound by the European Code of Conduct on Partnerships.

The legislation identifies a range of partners, including local authorities, social partners and fundamental rights bodies. Civil society organisations are also included in the list, given their key role in providing immediate and inclusive support on the ground. The AMIF also enlists refugee- and migrant-led organisations, national human rights institutions and equality bodies as key actors for consultation.

The programming of national plans was the very first test for the implementation of a more meaningful involvement of civil society. In January 2023, ECRE and PICUM surveyed 59 migration and asylum organisations in 22 Member States and two non-EU countries to assess their level of participation in this programming. The main findings of the survey point to a rather modest civil society participation in the decision-making of EU-funded programmes.

Low participation in migration and inclusion funds, none in security and border funds

Participation of civil society players in the programming of the national plans has been limited in terms of both quality and quantity. Only 20 out of 59 organisations surveyed provided oral or written inputs during the inception phase. In some cases, the quality of consultations has also been low. In Slovenia, the particularly short timeframes to comment on the proposed AMIF plan resulted in insufficient time to prepare meaningful contributions, and in Luxembourg and Austria, the AMIF consultations were only held informally.

Most inputs were provided to AMIF (17 times) or ESF+ plans (8 times), and no consultations were organised for BMVI and ISF programmes. While this is an area in which civil society organisations usually do not apply for EU resources, their participation in shaping national programmes should be ensured given the considerable fundamental rights risks that activities related to border management and security imply.

Persistent marginal inclusion of civil society in monitoring committees

The monitoring committees are the main platform for participation in the management of EU funds at national level. Partners should be represented in a balanced manner, with representatives of all the above-mentioned categories in each committee, in line with EU legislation.

However, the survey reveals divergent practices regarding participation in monitoring committees, both among Member States and among different EU programmes. Managing Authorities of Home Affairs funds are usually migration authorities and those responsible for ESF+ are usually social policy institutions.

As of January 2023, the surveyed organisations indicated that only five monitoring committees had members from civil society organisations working on migration, asylum and inclusion at national level. It is the case for AMIF and ESF+ in Germany, AMIF in Sweden, ESF+ in France and AMIF in Czechia. The situation may still change in the next months, as Member States have three months to set up a monitoring committee after the adoption of the programmes.

In France, AMIF monitoring committees are not open to civil society because the Managing Authorities fear this could lead to a conflict of interests, and only State departments are represented. In other countries, such as Spain, the BMVI national programme ticks the box of civil society participation, but no organisations working with migrants or inclusion feature in the membership.

Lack of transparency affects participation in monitoring committees

The selection procedures, availability of information and the overall work of the monitoring committees fail to respect key principles of transparency and accountability. Even the existence and the work of the monitoring committees is still significantly unknown to organisations working in those fields at national level, including among those receiving EU funds.

Despite the obligation to follow a transparent process, most respondents indicated that information provision from the Member States on the monitoring committees is generally low in terms of both quantity and quality. More than 60% of respondents specified that they are not aware of any monitoring committee, or that they have not been established yet (over 18%). A good practice in terms of transparency was observed in Bulgaria, where a website gathers all information on EU funds, and the call for expression of interest to join the AMIF monitoring committees was widely advertised.

The application of the partnership principle does not stop after the adoption of the national programmes, but continues during implementation and monitoring. It is in the interest of all tax-payers to ensure that EU money is spent in the most efficient way, and that the views of a plurality of actors are represented in a participative and well-balanced manner.

EU Member States have the opportunity to address existing flaws in the involvement of stakeholders in EU funds management. At the same time, the European Commission has the duty to ensure that the requirements are fulfilled. National authorities can still make monitoring committees accessible to all relevant players, including civil society organisations working with undocumented migrants, as well as those run by migrants themselves. Finally, they should contribute to create a transparent environment, where information on the composition and work of the committees is accessible, and where the committees are accountable to the public.

The EU and its Member States should not miss the opportunity to have a well-balanced and representative partnership in EU funding management, one that is capable to identify the key challenges and ensure that EU resources are used in the best way possible.