A strong, diverse and independent civil society is an indispensable component of any healthy democracy, acknowledged by all major international institutions. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and informal groups/movements of citizens 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. CSOs, as the organised part of the broader civil society are key channels of citizen voice, and act as a two-way link between the public and private arenas. They also perform vital functions in maintaining social inclusion, constructive dialogue and a healthy environment, and in our times of multiple crises, affecting the climate that sustains us, the integrity of our societies and our personal health these are more important than ever. In these respects, CSOs, community and citizen groups as well as social movements may be or already are important allies of the European institutions at times of escalating tensions with minorities, xenophobia, increasing levels of corruption, nepotism and weak democratic institutions in some Member States. Vice versa, CSOs’ look toward the European Union both as a supportive political actor and an important funder of their activities.
But in order to fulfill its democratic roles and functions, as well as to secure safe space for citizens to exercise their freedoms, civil society needs an enabling environment to flourish. However, today contrary trends, the shrinking of civil space may be observed in more and more European countries, too, manifesting in vilification and smear campaigns, harassment and various legal restrictions hindering civic action. As Member States are largely free and have independent competence to design their own policies and strategies concerning civil society, EU institutions have relatively few effective instruments to counter the negative trends in spite of their concerns, and even these do not constitute a systematic approach, rather a piecemeal, case-by-case reaction to developments.
Nevertheless, several recent developments demonstrate the increased attention and efforts to protect civil society by both the European Commission and the Parliament, manifesting e.g. in the inclusion of civil society as a sub-chapter in the annual Rule of Law report, in the new Strategy to strengthen the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Democracy Action plan as well as several EP reports. The introduction of the new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values program is another important step in terms of giving greater support to civil society within the EU.
However, none of the above address civil society per se or describe all the tools and instruments EU institutions, particularly the Commission, could employ and/or develop to strengthen and advance civil society across the continent. While such strategies exist in terms of the role of civil society in external relations (e.g. COM(2012) 492), and also the European Economic and Social Committee issued own-initiative reports to this effect, such a strategy addressing the civil society matters in their entirety within the EU is still missing.
A Commission communication in this matter would considerably contribute to the visibility of the problems and to putting civil society on the European agenda, by emphasizing its importance and determining the key points of action. Europe’s democracy can only be as strong as the citizens upholding it, working for it, and protecting it for next generations, too. Therefore, we believe that in order to efficiently defend democracy and rule of law, civil society should become a protected European value and asset in its own right.
Of course, civil society cannot be treated as a monolithic entity, but it is a very diverse collection of various groups, movements and organisations with differing goals, principles and interests. Therefore, it has no one accepted definition, but (according to international expert literature), there are several common features that, taken together can describe what civil society is – and what it isn’t. These are:
- non-profit and non-commercial (i.e. CSOs, while they can enter into economic activities are not formed with the primary goal of gaining material profit for its members and beneficiaries)
- non-governmental (i.e. are independent from state and/or business structures, but not strive to gain political power)
- voluntary in nature (i.e. not established by a compulsory act; while CSOs can have employees, voluntary contributions are part of their operation)
- have some level of institutionalisation and self-governance (that go beyond purely informal operation, regardless whether they have a legal personality or not)
- work for the public good (i.e. beyond the private interests of their members, rather for broader societal objectives).
A comprehensive civil society strategy (or plan) 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. It should:
- acknowledge the importance and the role of CSOs in upholding and promoting European values
- review ongoing initiatives and processes that have a relevance to civil society
- identify gaps and shortcomings
- integrate existing, new and future tools to defend and expand civil space.
This structure of such a strategy could be based on the taxonomy of relevant international expert recommendations, and discuss the enabling environment for civil society along e.g. the below main criteria:
- The right to entry (freedom of association);
- The right to/ freedom of peaceful assembly;
- The right to operate free from unwarranted state interference and state duty to protect
- The right to free expression;
- The right to cooperation and communication;
- The right to seek and secure resources.
The following draft, which also builds on the work of several international and European networks, lists the potential elements of this strategy in the proposed structure.
1 Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe: Monitoring 2019 - Eva More-Hollerweger, Flavia-Elvira Bogorin, Julia Litofcenko, Michael Meyer (eds.), ERSTE Foundation, Vienna
4 See e.g. Salamon, Lester M., Sokolowski, S.Wojciech és List, Regina (2003): Global Civil Society An Overview. Center for Civil Society Studies – Institute for Policy Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, U.S.A. /
5 Defend Civil Society Report, 2nd edition, June 2012, World Movement for Democracy/ICNL
Citizens across the European Union have the right to come together for a common cause, take action and represent their interests in any group. They are free to form civil society organisations - mostly associations and foundations. However, the legal environment varies among Member States: different rules apply to the registration process, administration, taxation, etc. These create an uneven playing field, hinder cross-border activities and other international initiatives of European citizens. Hence, a European civic space is much needed. It should be promoted through the convergence of these regulations and with a European legal form for associations.
Everybody has the right to protest. In recent years several Member States approved restrictive legislation on peaceful assembly justified as emergency measures necessary for public order and safety. Such excessive and unreasonable actions have been observed especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is crucial that European Institutions monitor both restrictions and good practices and publish their findings in order to promote unrestricted civic activism.
Members of civil society act for the common good. They represent an asset to the European community and contribute to sustaining our democracies. Their role should be acknowledged and properly communicated by the European institutions, especially because CSOs suffered media smear campaigns, stigmatisation, harassment and politically motivated administrative processes by state and non-state actors over the past decade. The Commission should monitor these attacks and step up in protection of European civil society. Civic actors should be able to signal threatening issues through a newly established alert mechanism and existing procedures, such as infringement, should continue.
Fake news, disinformation and distorted reporting contributes to the vilification and stigmatisation of CSOs. In consequence, they often suffer from a negative image despite defending democratic values. In addition, CSOs can't reach citizens outside of the ‘opinion bubbles’ if there is no balanced and unbiased media coverage. Hence, the Commission should give attention to an enabling media environment with special attention to topics covered by actors of civil society. The Commission should also promote European values and citizenship via civic education and raise awareness together with CSOs to counter antidemocratic trends and overcome current divides.
Truly inclusive democracies encourage dialogue between decision makers and civil society. Yet, CSOs still often find it difficult to access EU institutions and it is hard to effectively channel their messages and bring the voice of the people they represent to the European level. There is a strong need for a system of open and structured dialogue between EU institutions and organised civil society, which includes more transparency (such as easily accessible documents), better representation (involvement of CSOs in different stages of the decision-making processes) and regular contact via high-level meetings. Existing tools (e.g. Conference on the Future of Europe, European Citizens Initiative) should be improved after evaluation.
Civil society thrives if people believe in the values it represents. In return, CSOs can improve societies across the European Union, and they need to have access to resources in order to do so. Unfortunately, CSOs are underfunded in most Member States and suffer from excessive administrative burdens. To counter this on the European level, the new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) programme should be continued and improved to an even more transparent, flexible and user-friendly grant program. Easy access to other funding programs, simpler procedures, capacity building of applicants and the monitoring of such shortcomings across Member States should all help build a flourishing European civil society.
While the overall legislation of civil society remains a Member State competence, the role played by CSOs in upholding democracy and European values as well as their work across national borders warrants the need for a comprehensive European civil society strategy. The above summary describes the key potential measures the Commission could undertake to strengthen the status of civil society within the EU as the ally of European institutions, and to counter the negative trends observed in some Member States. Through giving due acknowledgement, following upon existing initiatives and launching new ones as proposed, civil society’s contribution to the European project can be utilised to its most potential, while at the same time weaving a “safety net” against further shrinking of civil space. For the future, further, even more ambitious plans for the legislation, financing and visibility of, and dialogue with CSOs may be considered – not least in light of the outcomes and recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
CSOs on their side are committed to play their part in this endeavour.
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