This article examines why, despite similar general interests, institutional positions and political constraints, EU social NGOs find it so difficult to develop co-operative strategies except on the most fundamental issues. To demonstrate these difficulties the article considers the general reasons for and against co-operation between social NGOs and then examines the difficulties and advantages of collective EU social NGO action during the 1998 NGO funding crisis, Red Card protest and civil dialogue. The article argues that there is a fundamental desire for, and are benefits from, close co-operation between the EU social NGOs. However, due to the complex ‘context structure’ within which NGOs must operate, this co-operative impetus is constantly undermined. In conclusion, the article argues that social NGOs will remain weak and insignificant actors until the Commission/Parliament and/or the social NGOs can organise the complex context structure and allow co-operative strategies to emerge.