Civil Society in Europe

Helmut Anheier argues that the increased politicisation of Europe’s diverse populations is also a product of European integration, and that the emerging pan-European civil society is ever more needed to mediate between “Brussels” and the EU’s 500 million people.

Civic Diversity

Civil society consists of a highly differentiated ensemble of organisations ranging from local clubs and societies to large NGOs—such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International—and from associations and humanitarian aid organisations to philanthropic foundations. In addition, there are various types of civic engagement: citizen movements, religious causes, town twinning, volunteer fire departments, or the Red Cross.

According to Ernest Gellner, civil society is a “buffer zone” between the state and the market—a societal sector strong enough to balance out the other two, preventing them from dominating. This is precisely why European civil societies cannot be regarded in isolation from the state. Rather, their relationship is fraught. The state has the complex task of forming a legislative and regulatory framework that is simultaneously limiting and empowering. Civic actors, on the other hand, need to abide by this framework, and ensure that neither the cacophony of individual interests leads to the detriment of the general interest, nor that civic engagement and a genuine balance of interests is threatened with force.

In fulfilling their respective roles, the state and civil society contribute to societies’ ability to find solutions for social, cultural, and economic problems of different sorts, albeit temporary and continuously contested, via self-organisation. This is the essential advantage of a balanced relationship between the state, market, and civil society.

Civic patterns in Europe are closely linked to welfare traditions, regulatory, and economic configurations. In the Scandinavian countries, civic engagement is much more pronounced than in southern or eastern European countries. Corporatist countries, such as Germany or France, are situated between the two extremes. Next to these basic patterns, there are also country-specific variations, which, in turn, are closely linked to the cultural and economic embeddedness and development of civil society.

New Developments

Today, more than 60 years after the Treaty of Rome and in light of European integration and progressing globalisation, Europe’s civil societies are increasingly moving into the spotlight of the political public sphere.

The first tendencies of this development go back to the 1990s, whenever more private interest groups started settling around European institutions. Civic institutions transported respective national matters to Brussels and European matters back to member states.

Another development towards stronger politicisation became apparent around the financial crisis of 2009–10. Internet-based movements, decentralised and non-hierarchical in structure, formed and networked quickly on the European level. Examples are the Occupy and Indignados movements, which coordinated their actions across borders and in a decentralised manner. The “Yellow Vests” movement, which has influenced French politics since 2018, follows this tradition, though its adherents are significantly more prepared for violence than in former instances.

Willingness to resort to violence is also a feature of another politicisation, which began in the 2010s. Mostly right-wing populist movements, such as Pegida in Germany and identarian groups in France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Austria were anti-EU in spirit but quite European in network There are also decidedly pro-European associations, such as the Pulse of Europe in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, or anti-Brexit groups in the United Kingdom.

A European Civil Society?

The increasing role of European institutions has bumped up against the diverse set of civil society structures among member states. In eastern European countries, accession negotiations were explicit about the relationship between the state and civil society, but legal specifications were not enough to insure against the establishment of fragile state–society patterns. The illiberal tendencies in Hungary and Poland are a sign of institutional weakness with respect to Europe.

It cannot be expected that the above-mentioned national and transnational developments result in an alignment of civil societies, as has been the case with markets, legal, and political institutions in the process of European integration. Civic traditions are embedded too deeply in national patterns of identity, religion, and culture.

However, this does not mean that Europe is or will be irrelevant. On the contrary, the last decade has witnessed a politicisation of European civil societies. They express conflicts pertaining to the economic, social, and cultural problems associated with European integration (as with globalisation more broadly). Changing markets and institutions and removing national borders sooner or later also alters civil society.

While national civil societies will continue along their established patterns, changing slowly, the establishment of an almost pan-European civil society has begun in parallel. This will increasingly negotiate old and newly developing interests on the EU level and continue to institutionalise. “Brussels” has already become the geographical centre of this parallel and professional civil society. However, this Europe-wide civil society does not develop monolithically, but it is linked to national and regional centres. This means that a European civil society is not simply an array of national patterns, but a complex interaction on the regional, national, and European level.

This could be good for Europe. Dahrendorf noted decades ago that liberal societies with agile civil societies are more prone to conflict but are better able to find solutions. This makes them more resilient and innovative than autocratic or illiberal systems. If that is the case, the conflictual mixing of local, national, and European civil societies can have a positive effect in the political context.


Helmut K. Anheier is Professor of Sociology, Academic Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum, and Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group on Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.