Existing research on how the involvement of civil society actors improves EU democratic legitimacy produces controversial results. This is the outcome of a top-down analytical strategy. Scholars regularly gauge partnership practices against different concepts of legitimacy, but rarely ask how actors themselves perceive and construct partnership, let alone how these understandings relate to existing concepts of legitimacy. Utilising a bottom-up sociological perspective, this article examines how actors in four central and eastern EU member states understand the partnership principle for European Structural and Investment Funds and how these understandings relate to different conceptualisations of legitimacy. A reconstruction of actors’ normative arguments shows that representatives of three groups (state officials, civil society organisations and social partners) prioritise different legitimacy effects which trigger contestation about the proper formats of partnership. While state officials focus on input legitimacy, civil society organisations insist on throughput and social partners emphasise output legitimacy. Variation across countries and within groups of actors further complicates this picture. This has implications for our understanding of Europeanization and the role of European civil society.
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