2022 Rule of Law Report – Commission calls on Member States to protect civil space
On 13 July, the European Commission issued its 2022 Rule of Law Report, including for the first time specific recommendations for each Member State on how to protect civil society space in their countries. As part of the consultation process for the report, Philea highlighted the issues that philanthropy is facing in the context of shrinking democratic spaces in Europe.
As the Covid-19 pandemic reduced public resources and centralised power in the hands of governments, Philea stressed the risk of the European civic space collapsing during this “unprecedented time of crisis”. In our contribution, we flagged the risk for extraordinary and potential coercive practices to remain in place after the normalisation of the health emergency and indicated the preservation of independent judicial systems as a fundamental priority.
The report further covered points of specific concerns for the philanthropic sector.
While the Polish and Hungarian governments are known to have weakened the rule of law and reduced the space for civil society, including less access to public funds, a series of issues have emerged in other EU Member States as well. The Commission noticed a lack of efficient frameworks for the consultation of civil society organisations in countries such as Greece and Italy, and a shortage of resources allocated to the justice systems in Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain. Moreover, with the aim of expanding transparency and accessibility, many countries are being called on to modernise and digitise their legal proceedings.
Weak spots of the report
Despite the effort to enlarge the scope of the study by publishing specific recommendations for each Member State, the 2022 Rule of Law Report raised some eyebrows. Daniel Freund, the Green rapporteur for the rule of law mechanism in the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, described the annual report as a mere “Rule of Law score card”. In his comment, he expressed his concerns about serious violations of civic and political rights in Hungary and Poland, and the inability of the European Commission to go beyond a simple report to counteract them. “We will not solve the rule of law problem if the EU merely keeps on writing reports”, said Freund, adding that “Rule of law violations must be sanctioned financially” by blocking access to EU funds to those countries that are not willing to fully let civic space thrive.
In this regard, while we agree with the necessity of dealing with those governments breaching democracy and political freedom, an indiscriminate crackdown in defence of the rule of law might exclude NGOs and non-profit organisations from receiving public funds. For this reason, Philea has called on many occasions on the European Commission to safeguard the final beneficiaries of the EU funds in case the conditionality mechanism should be triggered.
Along with the contribution to the 2022 Rule of Law Report, in 2021 we collaborated on a wider civil society contribution and a report on the involvement of civil society organisations in national recovery plans. Side by side with other civil society networks, Philea will continue engaging with policymakers, stressing the importance of protecting the non-profit sector, including philanthropy, against any backlash in the context of the rule of law and beyond.