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The concept of «civil society» is central to the European political discourse, and this emphasis is reflected in the EMP-Barcelona Process. The EMP provides support for selected civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) among the Southern Mediterranean states. EMP activities involve NGOs in policy-making forums, economic development, intercultural dialogues, promotion of common values, human rights, and peace-making.
However, evaluating the role of civil society is highly subjective, often without transparency, accountability and characterised by a «democracy deficit». Systematic research is necessary to assess the influence of these groups, the mechanisms by which the EU selects CSOs for funding, the interests of key political leaders and bureaucracies (such as development and aid offices, or foreign ministries) in this process, and the constituencies for whom NGOs actually speak, particularly in non-democratic societies in the Middle East.
The purpose of this paper is to look beyond the rhetoric and ideological claims regarding civil society, and to examine the political and social impact of NGO activities («soft power») within the EMP framework, using activities related to the Arab-Israeli relationship as a case study. After presenting the conceptual framework, this paper examines the results and impacts of EU-funded NGO and civil society programmes, including political dimensions, accountability, access to the media and to governments, and the examples in which CSOs become parties to the conflicts and exacerbate the differences between societies. Instead of the universalism and common values that are central to the EMP concept, these groups often promote anti-democratic, partisan and exclusivist claims.
On this basis, specific policy recommendations are proposed in the realm of civil society, funding for groups specialising in intercultural dialogue, and the EMP. These recommendations are designed to improve the oversight over CSOs funded under the EMP framework, in order to insure that their activities are consistent with EMP objectives and with their declared mission statements.