25 August 2023

Stronger civil society, stronger democracy: The Civil Society for EU campaign

Civil society actors from all over Europe are calling for better space for civil society and civil dialogue ahead of next year’s European elections. They are making two key requests: the development of a European Civil Society Strategy and an Interinstitutional Civil Dialogue Agreement.

Philea has been an active supporter and co-creator of the “Civil Society for EU” campaign, which complements the work Philea is doing for philanthropic actors/public-benefit foundations and its updating of the European Philanthropy Manifesto. Whereas issues relating to civil society space and civil dialogue are common across civil society, some issues are unique to public-benefit foundations, which hence require targeted analysis and advocacy efforts delivered by Philea. Have your say on the updating of the European Philanthropy Manifesto for policy recommendations for philanthropy in Europe, and read on to hear about and to support the wider civil society campaign.

The value of civil society

Civil society is an essential part of thriving democracies. From NGOs, philanthropic foundations, activist groups, charities, grass-roots and volunteer organisations, civil society actors channel collective concerns and needs in society, give a voice to people, provide key services, and promote active citizenship, solidarity and democratic values. When crises arise, they step up to support those in need, crucially complementing and reinforcing the action of governments and institutions.

Everybody seems to agree on the value of European civil society work. According to Eurobarometer, 76% of Europeans think that civil society has an important role in promoting and protecting democracy and common values, while 47% of them regularly engage with civil society organisations (CSOs), either by volunteering, taking offline and online actions, or donating money to support their activities.

The European Parliament emphasised “the crucial role played by CSOs in […] the formulation and implementation of EU law, policies and strategies”, and stressed “their key contribution to informed public debate, articulating aspirations present in society, giving a voice to vulnerable and marginalised people, ensuring access to crucial services, providing expertise in policymaking, promoting active citizenship, acting as schools of democracy”.

The Council of the European Union echoed these words, stating that “(CSOs) are an indispensable element in the system of checks and balances in a healthy democracy”.

A shrinking civil society space

Yet, despite all of this institutional and citizen support, civil society actors in Europe are facing a growing number of challenges. From judicial and administrative harassment to smear campaigns and restrictions to the freedom of association, assembly and expression, threats and attacks against CSOs and human rights defenders have been on the rise in the past years.

In several Member States the trust in civil society actors is undermined by a general climate of hostility, sometimes fuelled by state actors. Organisations and activists working in support of discriminated groups such as LGBTIQ+, refugees and asylum seekers, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, often pay the highest toll.

Open attacks and de-legitimisation are not the only obstacles to civil society actions. Even when overall political and media environments are more favourable, civil society actors might encounter difficulties in effectively carrying on their work on behalf of the constituencies they represent and making sure their voice is heard. Finding consistent and adequate funding opportunities can represent a serious struggle, while access to decision-makers to contribute to the policymaking process is often limited. In some cases, even well-intentioned legislation can have unintended consequences that create further barriers to the operational capacity of civil society actors.

The Civil Society for EU campaign

As next year’s European elections approach, the European Union has the opportunity to reverse these worrying trends and show full support to civil society by turning words into concrete actions. With this goal in mind, a broad coalition of civil society and philanthropy organisations – including Philea – have launched the Civil Society for EU campaign, asking for better support, empowerment and engagement of civil society during the next legislative term.

To be able to fully play its role to the benefit of European citizens and societies, CSOs need a safe and enabling civil society space; a protection mechanism to prevent and respond to all forms of discrimination and harassment; and more predictable and easy-to-access funding.

These are some of the key elements to be included in a clear, structured common framework to be developed for addressing in a comprehensive way current existing challenges and gaps in policies. What the campaign is calling for is the launch of a European Civil Society Strategy, a long-standing request from civil society actors all over the EU and beyond.

However, better recognition, protection and funding are only a part of the story. The EU needs to change the approach with which civil society is given the possibility to contribute to the development and implementation of EU laws and policies. Top-down consultations and limited opportunities for further exchange with decision-makers hinder the potential of civil society to meaningfully shape the policymaking process in all of its phases, bringing the expertise that comes from day-to-day presence on the ground.

In this regard, the Civil Society for EU campaign is calling on the EU institutions to conclude a civil dialogue agreement aimed at harmonising standards and increasing opportunities for civil society engagement across the different institutions and Member States, as well as to improve the openness and transparency of EU and national policy processes.

What is at stake is not only the creation of improved policies, opportunities and funds for CSOs themselves: A stronger and more empowered civil society means better services for people, stronger voicing of their needs, and a more balanced representation of public interests in the formation of decisions that affect us all. It means, in a nutshell, a more democratic and inclusive Europe for years to come.

Read the full Civil Society for EU campaign manifesto

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Riccardo Rossella
CS4EU Campaign Coordinator, Social Platform and Civil Society Europe