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The National Action Plan on social inclusion: an opportunity for the third sector?

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The European Union’s influence on its member states is currently the topic of frequent discussion, under the label of Europeanisation. With the establishment of the single market, further steps were necessary to ensure the future economic development of the member states. This included the fight against social exclusion, which refers to a situation in which people are prevented from participating fully in society because lack of financial assets, low education or insufficient skills. One means introduced to pursue this goal was the National Action Plan on Social Inclusion (NAPincl), introduced at the Lisbon meeting in March 2000. One of the objectives of the NAPincl was the ‘mobilisation of all relevant actors’. Member states are explicitly expected to include social partners (trade unions and employers), NGO’s and social service providers in the fight against social exclusion. This paper examines whether the introduction of the NAP has led to the desired mobilisation, and whether it has had the effect of bringing third sector organisations active at the national level closer together. Seven countries (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) were included in this case study. The period under investigation included the process of setting up both the first NAPincl (submitted in 2001 and covering the period 2001- 2003) and the second (submitted in 2003 and covering the period 2003-2005). The empirical results we have found in relation to mobilisation were quite varied. In some countries, particularly in Sweden and the United Kingdom, the introduction of the NAPincl was perceived to be associated with significant changes in the national tradition of involving third sector organisations in social inclusion policy: many new organisations came together (including user groups) and they were allowed to participate fully in the policymaking process. In the other countries the impact was far more limited. Sometimes (for example in Italy) the government simply ignored the European objective, whereas in others (for example Germany) it merely led to the revision of existing procedures. On the whole, the effect was greatest where no national tradition of mobilising the third sector existed. Where third sector participation was already institutionalised before and outside the NAP process, the NAP led to minor extensions or revisions of existing procedures. Interestingly enough, the NAP seems to have had little impact on third sector policy communities across the board. Generally nothing changed, and where it did, the effect remained confined to the small community of Europe-minded third sector organisations involved in social inclusion policy. One could argue that this outcome merely reflects national third sector policy communities. Where they were fragmented, any effects of the NAP remain within the affected fragment; where they were integrated, effects were incorporated as a matter of course; but in no instance did the NAP have a significant bridging effect. The evidence raises the question of how one should judge the effect of the NAPincl. One should not rely too strongly on a type of analysis that views the NAP in terms of implementation, of European pressure in the face of national opposition. What matters is that the NAP may have facilitated or revised ongoing changes at the national level. If this is the case, then one should not analyse this instrument in terms of an alien influence that may or may not be complied with. Rather, it should be understood in terms of how it weaved into national processes already set in motion.

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