Cover civil society in the annual Rule of Law reports in a structured and detailed manner
Continue the regular FRA data collection and monitoring of the state of civil society
Continue using infringement and legal procedures in case of legislation restricting legitimate civil society action
Create an alert system to report attacks on civil space
Condemn instances of harassment and attacks on civil society on the political level
Continue acknowledging the contribution of civil society to the European project
Over the past decade, CSOs in more and more Member States experienced attacks and harassment by state and non-state actors: these took the form of media smear campaigns and stigmatisation, harassing or politically motivated administrative processes or even restrictive legislation. In some Member States, the pure existence of some CSOs may be under threat as a result of these occurrences. The Commission should monitor these developments and step up as and where necessary and possible. To this end, the annual Rule of Law report should describe and analyse the state of civil society in each Member State in greater extent and detail than at present (in a separate chapter), and also formulate concrete recommendations for improvement as and when needed. An important reference for the content and the structure of such chapter may be found in the outputs of the Fundamental Rights Agency’s annual civil society consultations which survey the situation along 4 main criteria: (1) legal environment (2) funding and resources (3) participation and consultation (4) threats and attacks. In this regard, the Commission can build on its experience and practice of its external policies regarding the assessment of the state of civic freedoms and developing defence mechanisms for their defenders (e.g. as described in protectdefenders.eu).
While recognising the strong need of coordinated efforts to counter terrorism financing and money laundering worldwide, examples also in Member States show that the disproportionate or simply careless application of existing legal standards (e.g. the Anti-money Laundering Directive) may harm legitimate civil society organizations working for the public good (e.g. through excessive reporting obligations). Therefore, during the ongoing review of this legislation the Commission should maintain dialogue with key expert CSOs, and employ a uniform, risk-based and proportionate approach across the EU with special attention on the application of the term ‘beneficial owner’ in case of CSOs (and the related exception from obligations) in order to avoid undue impact on CSOs (see also in point 1.).
The Commission should also continue to use existing legal remedies to the greatest extent possible in cases where national legislation on civil society contravenes European law or standards (particularly the freedom of association and assembly), including infringement procedures and initiating cases at the ECJ, also in accordance with the Strategy to strengthen the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The recently proposed SLAPP directive (and related planned measures) will be an important systemic safeguard against a specific type of intimidation affecting CSOs, therefore its speedy adoption is desirable.
Also, an alert mechanism should be established (possibly at the European Ombudsman) to enable civil society actors to promptly signal to the European Commission serious issues and/or threats on civic freedoms, including potentially restrictive regulations or measures passed by Member States.
In their communication the institutions, including the Commission, also on the political (e.g. Vice President) level should condemn every instance of harassment and attacks on civil society (both by state and non-state actors) as well as give more regular visibility and acknowledgement to the contribution of CSOs to the common good.
1 See also: https://www.philanthropyadvocacy.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/AML-Consultation-contribution.pdf
2 Directive on protecting persons who engage in public participation from manifestly unfounded or abusive court proceedings (“Strategic lawsuits against public participation”) COM(2022) 177 final