Important Allies - Why Does the EU Need to Do More for Civil Society?

At times of democratic backsliding and the rise of populism, civil society organisations are important allies of the European institutions, as they play a vital role in the promotion and application of universal and European values.

‘Shrinking civil space’ was one of the new terms we all had to learn in the past half-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 by (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).

Strong concern

International bodies tasked with safeguarding rule of law and fundamental rights, such as US 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 approach: they are unable to address the “big picture”, to more systemic breaches of democratic values and principles.

Nevertheless, at 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.

Reference to civil society

The new EU institutions – Parliament and Commission – that came into power in 2019 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”.

The need for more support to CSOs defending democracy and human rights is recognised in the new Justice, Rights and Values Fund to be included in the next Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2021-27 – although both the size of its budget allocation and the mechanisms of its distribution (which should enable access to smaller organisations working on the local and national level) are uncertain at this point.

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 planned Conference on the Future of Europe and the Commission’s Rule of Law Review Cycle while important only include and address civil society in a marginal manner.

A comprehensive strategy

All in all, many ongoing processes demand our attention – however, these initiatives come from different players, develop at their own speed, but still lack a systemic, comprehensive approach. We believe it is time that the EU institutions, in particular the Commission, outline those minimum or common standards that all members states must adhere to in relation to their civil societies. The Commission should also decide on 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, constructive dialogue and healthy environment.

To this end, six foundations supporting the development of civil society in Central Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria, united under the umbrella of the Environmental Partnership Association (EPA), along with many other organisations coined an outline of the key areas and elements of a potential comprehensive EU civil society strategy.

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 Green Paper), 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 at EPA are committed and hope to find open ears and partners in our quest for endorsing a policy like this.

The article was published in the Visegrad Insight 25 February 2020.