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European Forum on CSR: The Old feuds are haunting the European Corporate Social Responsibility debate and stifling progress

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Will we go back to the old feud between mandatory VS voluntary compliance that kept polarizing the debate on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? The discussions held in the last CSR Forum make us fear not just the status quo – but of the risk of going back 10 years in time.

The European Commission organised on the 3rd and 4th February the Multistakeholder Forum on CSR, gathering hundreds of business and civil society representatives to discuss the future of the European strategy on CSR. Civil Society Organizations came in large numbers with great expectations. Assessing the current state of CSR, we can acknowledge the positive shifts in the EU approach to CSR brought about by the Barroso II Commission. Unfortunately it only delivered a very small number of concrete reforms – the widely welcomed new rules on corporate non-financial reporting being the (only) outstanding one. Now, with the Juncker Commission proclaiming to be the “Better Regulation” Commission, we attentively await what it will put forward in order to make EU business truly responsible for their impacts on society.

In last month’s event, from the very introduction the European Commission made its ambitions clear: Nothing mandatory should be expected to come out from this new CSR strategy; it should remain business-driven and non-prescriptive. It seemed we had gone back to the past, to a time where even the mere mention of the word regulation induced panic among Commission decision makers. The current statement made was a clear threat to the “smart mix” of legislative and voluntary measures that was at the centre of the previous strategy in 2011-2014 – strategy not vigorously challenged by stakeholders during the large consultation that was held in 2014.

The calls for regulatory action were not just coming from NGOs. A Unilever representative rightly said that some issues can only be addressed through regulation.

Whereas some NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth Europe, warned they would not participate to an empty debate focusing on voluntarism. Reflecting this, the striking absence of consumers and trade unions in these forums pose a real risk to the legitimacy of CSR. And as usual, affected communities were also missing from this debate, showing there is still a long way to go to have all interested and affected parties at the discussion table.

If business and human rights were at the heart of the programme, the outcomes of the sessions were disappointing.

The European Commission representatives did not stand out and sat through most of the event as simple spectators. Despite having all panellists call on the European Union to improve access to justice in case of corporate abuses – “the backbone of CSR”, a speaker said - the representative from the Commission referred to possible reforms only after 2020. How can CSR truly deliver if decision makers turn a blind eye to the insurmountable obstacles faced by victims trying to assert their rights?

Yet, it is not too late for the commission to come up with bold measures. Richard Howitt, European Parliament rapporteur on CSR suggested several initiatives be included in the future strategy, such as defining what actually constitutes ’Due Diligence’ for all companies from a European perspective (see here his full speech).

Because of its multi-dimensional nature, the CSR debate offers a space where important changes can be achieved (see ECCJ, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth Europe joint statement). The new strategy must show strong EU leadership, translated into a robust, coordinated approach within the entire Commission. It must renew the emphasis on an effective regulatory framework for CSR. It must include bold initiatives that require business to undertake human rights due diligence throughout their global operations. It must address the barriers to remedy faced by victims.

If the EU is sincere about its ambition to be a global leader on CSR, it should stop consulting old recipes. The current approach to CSR hasn’t delivered real progress for the workers and communities whose lives are impacted by decisions made in the headquarters of European companies.

The EU should not miss out this new opportunity to carry out robust reforms - or risk falling into the mediocre pages of history.

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