18 October 2021

An EU Civil Society Strategy: Why Do We Need It?

by Veronika Móra, Hungarian Donors Forum

Last week the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna helds its annual conference Fundamental Rights Forum (FRF), which after last years´ fully online edition, took a format of the hybrid event. FRF is a unique platform for dialogue about the most pressing human rights challenges that Europe faces today and one of the sessions of the conference “An EU civil society strategy: Why do we need it?” was organised by our member, the Hungarian Donors Forum. The session strived to provide an overview of the challenges faced by civil society organisations in the EU, particularly in Central Europe and how could EU help. You can watch all the sessions online here.

Veronika Móra from the Hungarian Donors Forum explains in details the need for the civil society strategy as it was also discussed during the FRF.

’Shrinking civil space’ was one of the new terms we all had to learn in the past decade. Threats to the free, independent and autonomous operation and indeed to the sheer existence of civil society organisations (CSOs) is by now not something that only happens in faraway, exotic countries with little or no democratic traditions, but occurs within the borders of the European Union, too – particularly in Central European Member States, but warning signs have been observed in “established democracies” such as Germany, France and Spain. The symptoms of narrowing space range from discrediting and vilification campaigns in (government-friendly) media with libellous accusations, harassing inspections by official authorities (such as the tax agency), attempts to close down individual organisation (in Bulgaria), and legal restrictions to the freedom of association (Hungary) and assembly (Poland).

International bodies tasked with safeguarding rule of law and fundamental rights, such as UN Special Rapporteurs and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Council of Europe have all issued reports and expressed strong concern over these trends, but failed to make a real impression on the governments in question. The European Union, through its infringement procedures and the European Court of Justice is somewhat better equipped to counter the most extreme actions and moves of Member State governments, however these instruments still represent a piecemeal, case-by-case, reactive approach, which are unable to address the “big picture”, to more systemic breaches of democratic values and principles.

Nevertheless, at our times of democratic backsliding and the rise of populism, CSOs are important allies of the European institutions, as they play a vital role in the promotion and application of universal and European values on the local, national and supra-national levels, and are often the first and last frontier upholding and promoting respect for human rights, dignity, freedom, tolerance and solidarity. Yet, civil society policy is still by and large a Member State competence, that is, national governments are free to design and implement their own approaches and strategies vis-a-vis civil society in their countries.

The EU institutions that came in office in 2019, particularly the Parliament and the Commission seem to be more aware of this problem than their predecessors (though not without being reminded by European civil society umbrellas), illustrated, among others, by the fact that the mission of the Commissioner for Transparency and Values, Vera Jourova now includes a reference to civil society and the protection of right of peaceful assembly and the freedom of association”. During the past year, the Commission adopted a number of important documents, such as the European Democracy Action Plan and the Strategy to Implement the Charter of Fundamental Rights which have an impact on civil society The new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values Fund included in the current Multiannual Financial Framework (2021-27) with a significant allocation of 1.55 billion Euros Also, the old-new idea of creating a European legal form of civil society organisation, enabling easier cross-border operation, and if needed. relocation is on the table. At the same time, both the Conference on the Future of Europe and the Commission’s annual Rule of Law report while important only include and address civil society in a marginal manner.

All in all, many ongoing processes demand our attention – however, these initiatives came from different players, develop at their own speed, but still lack a systemic, comprehensive approach, and view civil society as an instrument to achieve certain policy goals e.g. in the field of gender or disabilities, but not as an entity and a value on its own right. Therefore, we believe it is time that EU institutions, the Commission in particular, adopts dedicated civil society strategy/policy in order to raise attention and make the issue more visible on the political agenda. Such a strategy could be a combination of ongoing initiatives and proposed future measures, outline the common standards all Members States should adhere to in relation to their civil societies as well as the main policy tools that would help not only to counter the trend of shrinking space, but create an enabling environment in which CSOs can fulfil their functions in maintaining social inclusion, a constructive dialogue and healthy environment. To this end, Ökotárs with its partners from Central Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria along with many other organisations drafted a potential model for such a comprehensive EU civil society strategy, structured along six main prerequisites necessary for a healthy civic space:

  • Freedom of association (legal environment)
  • Freedom of peaceful assembly
  • The right to operate free from unwarranted state interference and the state’s duty to protect
  • The right to free expression
  • The right to cooperation and participation
  • The right to seek and secure resources(funding)

The individual points and components of this set of recommendations may not sound very new or original, as it builds on earlier proposals and work done by both international bodies and CSOs. But its long-term goal is to serve as a basis of a much-needed official document (e.g. a Commission Communication), which would clarify the EU’s position towards civil society and its functions, discuss to what end and how it would engage with organisations, which instruments and tools are available or will be developed to counter shrinking space, including key milestones as well as how the Union will encourage Member States to implement similar measures on the national level. We as civil society organisations are committed and hope to find open ears and partners in our quest for endorsing a policy like this.

The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) and Philanthropy Advocacy (Dafne & EFC) have published a joint Handbook on How to Use EU Law to Protect Civic Space.