According to the Blue Book describing the priority sectors and programme areas of the 2014-22 period “Support from the EEA and Norway Grants to civil society reflects a firm recognition of the sector’s role as a fundamental building block of democratic governance, human rights and social cohesion across Europe. (…) Civil society organisations (CSOs) mobilise participation in civic life, and play a key role in promoting active citizen engagement in decision-making at local, national and European levels.”
Yet these organisations find themselves in increasingly difficult positions in most programme countries.
While Hungary and Poland are the most notorious pioneers of the trend, the phenomenon of shrinking civil space can be observed elsewhere, too, manifesting in the de-funding, vilification and harassment of independent CSOs as well as in legislation restricting the exercise of the freedom of association, assembly and expression. However, in order to flourish, civil society should not only be free of unwarranted state interference, but needs an enabling environment, in which organisations can engage in dialogue and participation with public bodies, can freely seek and secure resources and where the state actively protects and promotes these rights and freedoms.
CSOs, community and citizen groups as well as social movements are also important defenders of European values, and in these times of rising populism, escalating tensions, polarization, xenophobia, increasing levels of corruption and weak democratic institutions may be or already are important allies of the European institutions. Vice versa, CSOs’ look toward the European Union both as a supportive political actor and an important funder of their activities. But as civil society matters are largely a Member State competence, and thus countries are free to design their own policies and strategies in this regard, EU institutions have relatively few effective instruments to counter the negative trends in spite of their concerns.
The current European Parliament and the Commission which entered office in 2019 made “a new push for European democracy” one of its key priorities. Following this, over the past year the Commission launched a number of new initiatives and strategies with a relevance to civil society – among these the annual Rule of Law Report, the second edition of which is to be published this summer, the European Democracy Action Plan, the new Strategy to strengthen the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as a number of sectoral strategies addressing the problems of specific vulnerably groups including LGBTQ and disabled people, the Roma, etc. A new funding program called Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) with a significant allocation of 1.55 billion € for the coming 7 years should help implement these ambitions in practice. On its side, among other initiatives the Parliament has revived an old idea to introduce a European statute for associations and foundations, enabling the smoother transnational operation of CSOs.
However, these multitude of initiatives while important in themselves lack a coherent and comprehensive approach. They tend to address only specific problems of civil society and often view CSOS as instrumental in achieving certain policy goals, but not as a sector with intrinsic functions and values. This is why the consortium implementing the Reclaim Our Civil Space! made its eventual goal to develop and advocate for the passing of a European civil society policy (or strategy), thereby putting the issue on the EU agenda. This strategy should describe, in a structured manner, an (as much as possible) complete array of measures and actions that are at the disposal of the Commission or can be developed to help CSOs in the EU to flourish. With project partners we have developed a draft paper outlining the possible components of such a future strategy/policy:
(1) Legal environment: for historical reasons, the statutory regulation governing the establishment and operation of CSOs is divergent across Member States. In order to improve convergence in the Union (and to avoid the emergence of restrictive regulations), the Commission together with civil society experts should develop guidelines for the best practices of association and foundation legislation, with a view to further improve the enabling environment for civil society and to decrease administrative burdens. Besides setting minimum expectations towards national legislation, the work on creating a European/supranational legal form for CSOs – an association/foundation statute – should be completed, alongside other measures to eliminate cross-border barriers to civil society and philanthropy e.g. in terms of taxation.
(2) Freedom from unwarranted state interference: European institutions should continue and improve the regular monitoring of the state of civil society in Member States (e.g. by expanding the relevant chapter in the Rule of Law Reports), complemented by an alert mechanism enabling civil society actors to promptly signal to the European Commission serious issues and/or threats on civic freedoms. At the same time, the Commission should continue to use existing legal remedies to the greatest extent possible in cases where national legislation on civil society contravenes European law or standards including infringement procedures and referring cases to the European Court of Justice. Besides, EU legislation with potentially adverse unintended effects on CSO operation, e.g. the Anti-Money Laundering directive should be reviewed and amended using a risk-based and proportionate approach. Finally, giving visibility and political acknowledgement to civil society and its functions in upholding European democracy is also important, of nothing else from the mental health point of view.
(3) Freedom of expression: CSOs in a number of Member States suffer most from biased reporting and media smear campaigns. While in this area again, European institutions have little room to manoeuvre, more attention could and should be paid to civil society issues in EU cooperation among media regulators and self-regulatory bodies, support to greater media diversity as well as enhancing media literacy set out in the European Media Plan. Citizen education is another crucial field for civil society: active citizens and civic engagement are the key basis of civil society on the one hand, and CSOs themselves are important actors of (especially non-formal and informal) citizen education on the other. As current practice is very divergent across the Union, the Commission should develop a comprehensive guidance for Member States to develop educational curricula and programs based on the relevant Council of Europe Charter, with appropriate funding e.g. through the Erasmus+ programme.
(4) Dialogue and participation: this is an area where EU institutions themselves should considerably improve their current own practice by developing an inter-institutional guidance for a system of open, inclusive, regular and structured dialogue between the Commission as a whole, individual DGs, the President and the Committees of the Parliament, the Council Presidency on the one hand and organised European civil society on the other. (The currently ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe process may serve as an exciting “laboratory” for future improvements in this field.) Besides, the delegation of civil society members to in the European Economic and Social Committee, and important liaison between EU institutions and stakeholders should be reformed in order to guarantee real representation and inclusion. Further, the Commission should encourage participation at the national and local levels, too, e.g. via stringently monitoring the implementation of the compulsory consultations during national programming processes, and stepping up in case of deficiencies, or where consultation was just a “tick-box exercise”. Another tool may be to develop guidelines enabling meaningful contribution and increased transparency at all levels using the Council of Europe Recommendations on the participation of citizens in local public life provide as a baseline.
(5) Funding: in most countries across the EU, CSOs, especially those engaged in advocacy, defending rights and democracy are often underfunded, as public sources are cut back or due to excessive administrative burdens related to grants. In this respect, the CERV programme is a welcome development, however, the “devil lies in the details”, in its actual implementation and impact, which will need to be evaluated in the coming years. But CERV shouldn’t be the only source available to CSOs – their access to other programs (e.g. Creative Europe, Horizon Europe) should also be incentivised. Besides the improvements on the centrally managed programs, the Commission should also monitor the practices of the Member States in case of the funds under shared management looking at the extent to which CSOs can benefit from these funds both as lead applicants and partners.
In our view, civil society’s contribution to the European project can be best utilised to its most potential through implementing these measures in their fullness. For the future, further, even more ambiguous plans for the legislation, financing and visibility of, and dialogue with CSOs may be considered. CSOs on their side are committed to play their part in this endeavour.
Veronika Móra, Ökotárs – Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation
 Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe: Monitoring 2019 - Eva More-Hollerweger, Flavia-Elvira Bogorin, Julia Litofcenko, Michael Meyer (eds.), ERSTE Foundation, Vienna