European Civic Forum

Blame it on the NGOs!

Source: ECF monthly newsletter

So here we are again! Two weeks ago, in the EP plenary in Strasbourg, in a vote to the report on Transparency, Accountability and Integrity in EU institutions, a strong majority of MEPs rejected some last minute amendments aimed at restricting civic freedoms and participation of civil society organisations to express critical voice in the decision making process. By targeting NGOs, these amendments diverted attention, as Civil Society Europe underlines, “from undue influence of corporate interests and from the duty that EU institutions themselves have to respect transparency and prevent risk of conflicts between private and public interests”.

As alleged in an opinion in the EU Observer, funding NGOs which also engage politically while bridging the ‘democratic deficit’ between institutions and citizens is undemocratic and too expensive. So “European NGOs, which lobby the EU institutions” won. They can now continue to enjoy their oligarchic influence over European affairs, bypassing transparency rules and “disseminating untruths” that, on the top of it, “are contrary to the policy objectives of the European Union”.

In a time when NGOs’ legitimacy to criticise the ruling authorities is seriously questioned by authoritarian leaders and corporate lobbyists, it is important to remind that numerous big or small NGOs funded by the European Union, gather and empower citizens to speak up collectively reclaiming the values of equality, solidarity, democracy, inclusiveness in the European building processes and policies. They call for more social justice, a genuine European democracy and fair access to fundamental rights for all.

We have to keep in mind how often corporate interests misused figures and numbers in order to frame policies going against the general interest.  Thus, the 3028 registered NGOs within the Transparency Register, might be well fit to counter weight the registered 4486 companies and corporate interest groups who decided to register (and the so many others who don’t). Let be serious. The field of play is not a field where the poor corporate lobbyists were “outnumbered by hundreds of EU-funded environmentalist protesters with whistles and large banners”.

Civil Society Europe, the European coordination of organised civil society, has been repeatedly calling for increased transparency regarding EU funding and decision making.

In the end, while accusing NGOs of hiding the “black sheep” among them, the right question could be: Who wants to undermine the democratic legitimacy of representatives of the general interest?

SOTEU: statement by the European Civic Forum

On Wednesday 13 September, European Commission president Juncker announced what will be the course of Europe until late 2018, in front of the European Parliament. The European Civic Forum paid a special attention to his speech and wanted to contribute to the debates around the Future of Europe with its statement following Mr. Juncker’s speech.

You can read the document here.

European Civic Days: Civil Society Perspectives for a Positive Narrative

The European Civic Days this year brought us to Belgrade, spotting positive examples of civic mobilisations from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, illustrating the values we share, tapping into their potential for developing counter narratives in a regional context where people are particularly confronted with a deep disillusionment with the transitional promise of democratic consolidation and economic prosperity after the fall of the iron curtain.

In recent years, a new face of Eastern Europe burst into the spotlight, dyed with walls, barber wires, revival of nationalism and identity politics pushed by authoritarian, antidemocratic regimes. In the same time, mistrust in political institutions and representatives has sparked into new forms of civic protest and resistance, claiming values that go against those regressive discourses and policies.

What are the possible drivers to keep authoritarianism at bay and build a convincing progressive perspective? How can fights against nationalist, xenophobic and antidemocratic authoritarianism converge and feed the broad perspective of a wider fight against the current EU integration model mostly based on competition of all against all with constantly shrinking solidarity policies? These were the questions the conference tried to address “with the pessimism of reason and the optimism of will”.



The scary monster at the periphery

As Vedran Dzihic from the Austrian Institute of International Affairs pointed from the outset, the “end of history” premise that former totalitarian regimes would irreversibly walk towards democracy along the embracement of liberal economy turned to be wrong. He holds that the socio-economic situation partly accounts for this, as the promise of welfare state for all was not fulfilled within the neoliberal restructuring of the societies, which led to deep cleavages between different parts of the population, with wide precariat deprived of socio-economic rights and new neoliberal clientelistic elites. Secondly, the normativity along liberal values, freedoms and rights that was part of the European agenda has been weakened by the internal crisis of the role model itself. Against this background, we witness the emergence of new forms of governmentality especially at this periphery of Europe, based on rhetorical adjustments to democracy, which are well described by Michael Ignatieff (President of Central European University – CEU) as “nationalist in ideology, authoritarian in politics and capitalist in economy”. Dzihic deplores that the European Union plays the role of a “dead man walking” and has not proved efficient so far in addressing these challenges, due to its failure to respond to social needs and the pragmatism of its policy in the region, choosing to externalise responsibility for democratic change to local communities and civil society while supporting local authoritarian leaders for the sake of stability and security (see here his more in-depth analysis of the “authoritarian code”).

If we look at Hungary as one of the most emblematic cases of this new form of “chameleon regimes” in between democracy and authoritarianism, a letter from Prime Minister Orban in response to Civil Society Europe concerns about recent measures against “foreign funded” NGOs or the “Soros funded” Central European University stands as a good example of rhetorical adjustments. Sans titre

Dora Papp from Kretakor Foundation in Hungary confirms that the wording used by Mr Orban shows perfectly the patterns employed by the government in the name of transparency, national security or antiterrorism, to silence down criticism, especially coming from civil society, currently the only voice for opposition to the authoritarian government. She outlined the crucial role civil society has to play in this context, as key actor to mobilise and organise resistance on the streets but also, on the long run, to build critical thinking inside the society, as “politics became part of our lives”.

It is indeed worrying to see that raising illiberalism is a contagious phenomenon in Central and South-eastern Europe, as Filip Pazderski from the Polish Institute of Public Affairs avowed. Poland has been experiencing as well a long way to democratization and for him the lack of political literacy combined with the lack of trust in democratic institutions partly explains why the current ruling party could so easily install its regime and dismantle the rule of law and basic freedoms. But on the other side of the coin, previous economic policies which left many behind account as well for the situation.

Klementyna Suchanow, one of the organisers of the Polish Women Strike who mobilised on 3rd October 2016 – the Black Monday – thousands of women (and men) across Poland against a ban on abortion, confirms how much the civic and democratic situation is deteriorating every day since the conservative party took office in October 2015. The battle against the abortion ban is won and the movement is being kept alive ever since, as she announced a civil disobedience action the same day (June 10th) in Poland alongside the official commemoration of victims of Smolenk plane crash, which became an expression of hate against government opponents and calls for international support and solidarity which is very much needed to keeping spirits up for mobilisations or in case of detention. She voices the need to build wide coalitions between social movements, activists and journalists to claim access to rights for all and to reveal and document the strategies and links between regressive, ultra conservative, religion-driven forces which are increasingly gaining ground in Europe and prove quite successful in implementing their conservative agendas.

The rise of this “conservative revolt” eroding not only democracy but also the secular character of the state, is yet another common feature of these regional contexts, as outlined by Claudiu Craciun, Romanian activist and founding member of Demos (Democracy and Solidarity) platform, which is the progressive stream of Romanian string of protests occurring in Romania since 2012 against austerity, corruption, for environmental protection or electoral rights. He draws up a complex picture of several cleavages inside the Romanian society that such kind of progressive movement needs to face, from the right / left cleavage, the authoritarian / antiauthoritarian cleavage and, more recently, the modernity / antimodernist cleavage, marked by the rise of conservative religious groups which became extremely vocal in mobilising social energies and putting pressure on political parties.  The recent platform for the defence of rights and liberties, called RESPECT, uniting more than 100 NGOs and activists, has been mainly created to fight against a proposal for constitutional referendum on defining marriage as a union between a woman and a man. Romanian authorities are also reproducing the different patterns of regional illiberal regimes and this is to be noticed in their attitudes towards critical NGOs, considered as “Soros agents” working against national interests. As revealed by Andrei Pop from the Civil Society Development Foundation, modification of the NGO legislation is currently in discussion, imposing harsh and discriminatory reporting obligations and forbidding criticism towards the political actors (see here the letter sent by a coalition of NGOs to Romanian government).



This is a question for civil society!

While the concept of civil society is often manipulated in the context of electoral campaigns with new ways of doing politics that flourish on the detestation of politics, as we saw recently in France, or some time ago in Italy, a real question stemmed out of discussions, that is whether civil society should enter the political arena to change the rule of the game. There was a wide agreement among participants on the key role civil society plays in shaping political vision for open, democratic and inclusive societies where rights should be equally accessed and accessible to all.

Strajk HR Marina Skrabalo from GONG and Solidarna, explains the biggest challenge for civil society in Croatia in deconstructing the taboo of the strict division between political and social activism, as it has been shaped during the “democratization agenda”. Considering the current educational challenges in Croatia and the constant battlefield between progressive forces and antimodernists and ultraconservatives which are strongly attacking the values of secularism, but also looking at how incompetent political elites have been recruited through political party structures so far, she considers high time to overcome this strict division between social and political spheres. Pointing at the tradition of trade union activism in western democracies such as France, Germany, or the UK, she deplores that currently the communication between social movements, NGOs and political parties is not working. Finally, she recalls the Croatia can do better campaign for educational reform when, for the first time in civil society activism, patriotism has been reclaimed by progressive activists against governmental vision for education consisting of “patriotic history”, literature conveying traditional and Christian virtues, and conservative sexual education.



From politics of fear to politics of values

Taking the debate forward, Vedran Dzihic concluded by pointing to current transformations of the political as such, in the age of post factuality, the permanent spectacle, the diminishing of institutions or the crisis of representation. To him, regardless of the various ways in which we could reach social and political change, from social mobilisations, NGOs action, policy work or electoral race, these different paths should be first of all values-oriented.

Values are not questionable and values-cantered discourse should be able to set clear fault lines and deconstruct the rhetorical adjustments. Secondly, there’s need to answer to the social question, as the promise of welfare which accompanied the promise of democracy along the perspective of European integration created enormous expectations on the side of the population, which were broken in Eastern Europe and the Balkans by political elites system of redistribution of public resources through clientelistic channels to gain hegemonic position.

And the EU will only represent an alternative when democracy will be reconciled with the social question. Finally, citing from Judith Butler, he suggests that reclaiming values and rights when democracy is being hijacked, must take the form of performativity, as a way of enacting democracy through joyful citizens’ agency and ownership of public space. Current social and citizens’ movements that are slowly reshaping the political venue may carry such kind of “real utopia” towards a “politics of joy”.



Survey on the future evolution of organised civil society in the EU

The role of civil society organisations has evolved significantly and will continue to change in the future. Their capacity to contribute to political and societal development will depend on a variety of factors, including funding, technological development and the increasing role of social media.

This survey seeks to analyse the main challenges for CSOs at national and European level, the trends and drivers of change, and future prospects for relations between policy-makers at national and European level and CSOs. The survey is part of the study that will develop a set of scenarios looking forward to 2030 setting out possible futures for CSOs, along with an overview of the possible consequences of those changes in terms of CSOs’ relations with public authorities. The survey is conducted on behalf of the European Economic and Social Committee by ENNA and CNVOS Slovenia. The survey has 8 questions and will take app. 15 minutes of your time. We kindly ask you to answer them and help us with the study. Your responses will be confidential.

The link to the survey can be found here.

#IStandWithNGOs: how did civil society react to Hungary’s law on NGOs

On 13 June 2017, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a new law on “Transparency of Organisations supported from abroad”. Behind these words stands a strong control of the government over civil society organisations, working especially on human rights and Rule of Law.

As explained by the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law in a briefing paper on 15 June 2017, the new law introduces a status of organisation supported from abroad, a term which will label any Hungary-based organisation receiving more than 7,2 million HUF (ca. 24 000 EUR) in a tax year. Beyond the administrative label which implies additional burden, such organisations will have to clearly show their status publicly, on their websites and any other communication material they produce.  Failure to comply with the required administrative and publication requirements might result in the dissolution of dissident NGOs.

Together with a limited access to funding, the law is worrying in the sense that it hinders NGOs’ daily work and creates concerns over possible multiplying effects throughout the EU. Although it is the first law of this kind in the EU, there are already similar legislations in other countries, another source of concern for civic actors. They namely consider this Hungary’s law as a strong attempt to silence NGOs and to shut down any dissident voice against Orban and his illiberal democracy.

Following a call launched by around 200 Hungarian associations and organisations under the banner #Civilvagyok , the European Civic Forum and Civil Society Europe called upon all active citizens, civic movements, volunteers who firmly defend the values of solidarity, democracy and equality, to demonstrate in front of their respective Hungarian embassies. The message was sent to Viktor Orban and wannabe leaders that NGOs and citizens will not disappear from the public sphere and will continue their work towards a more democratic European society, whatever their conditions are.

Below are some of the mobilisations that occured throughout Europe on 13 June, a few minutes before the law was passed. You can also find the full page dedicated to this mobilisation.

From France to Serbia, via Poland and Belgium, activists and ordinary citizens came out to show their solidarity with Hungarian NGOs. Their calls were notably supported by some MEPs and by the European Economic and Social Committee. Yet, even though the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe warned about the danger of such a law, no official measure was undertaken by the European Union against a Member State openly violating EU fundamental values.


Foundation Stefan Batory joins the European Civic Forum!

The annual General Assembly held last month in Belgrade, Serbia, saw ECF members discussing new applications for membership. The European Civic Forum is happy to welcome the Polish Foundation Stefan Batory, who will no doubt bring in their energy and expertise in advocating for open and democratic societies.

Thus, the core mission of the Batory Foundation is to build an open, democratic society – a society of people aware of their rights and responsibilities, who are actively involved in the life of their local community, country and international society. By inviting citizens to think critically and to engage in their communities, the Batory Foundation’s vision of Europe goes perfectly in line with the one promoted by the European Civic Forum.

The Batory Foundation is the fourth Polish organisation to join the ECF, together with Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej (Civic Education Centre), the Institute of Public Affairs and the Polish Rural Youth Union.

More than 250 NGOs call for another vision of the Future of Europe

More than 250 non-government organisations from across Europe have today released an alternative vision for a more democratic, just and sustainable Europe.

Intended to influence the debate on the future direction of Europe, this alternative vision is endorsed by organisations representing a multitude of public interest issues, including democracy, labour rights, culture, development, environment, health, women’s rights, youth, and anti-discrimination groups.

It comes ahead of a summit of EU leaders this week with the key issues for Europe’s future on the agenda, including migration, security, jobs and Brexit. This week also marks the one year anniversary of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union (June 23) which propelled questions about the future of Europe up the political agenda.

The vision describes a future for Europe in which “sustainability sits firmly at the heart of the European project,” and the EU focuses on “democracy and participation, social and environmental justice, solidarity and sustainability, respect for the rule of law, and human rights both within Europe and around the globe”.

The organisations are putting this scenario for the future forward as an alternative to proposals from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, including five ‘Future of Europe’ scenarios which are currently being consulted on with member states with first conclusions due at the end of the year.

The European Civic Forum joined 250 other organisations in reclaiming another Future of Europe and invites its member organisations and affiliated partners to sign the call too. The full text can be found here.

Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS re-launch their survey on Civic Space: your voice counts!

Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS have re-launched their annual survey to map out key trends on civic space in Europe over the last year. Our survey covers the European Union, the European Economic Area (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway), Switzerland, and the countries candidate to EU accession (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey).

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people, everywhere in the world, have the right to speak out, to organise, and to take action. These rights – the freedoms of association, assembly and expression – give us the freedom to form and join groups, peacefully protest, and advocate for the things we want – and to counter the things we don’t. These freedoms are called `civic space’ and are an essential part of a vibrant democracy; where debate and discussion thrive, and where people are able to contribute to important decisions that affect them.

As a follow up of our first survey in 2016, we want to assess how operating conditions for civil society have changed in Europe over the past 12 months. A better understanding of the trends will better equip us to work together by responding collectively to common challenges. Your participation ensures a diverse range of views is included and we guarantee that the findings will be made freely available for your information and use.

The survey runs until end of June 2017. All interested organisations and civic actors are kindly invited to disseminate the survey widely.

Please access  the survey in English here

Please access the survey in French here

Please access the survey in Italian here

Civil society development in Poland on the crossroads of political game

Filip Pazderski, Policy Analyst of the Democracy and Civil Society Programme in the Institute of Public Affairs (PL) and representing his organisation in the Board of the European Civic Forum, gave an interview to Visegrad Insight, an opinion journal led by accomplished editors from the Visegrad Group countries. In his interview Filip notably explains the controversial move of the Polish government to take control over foreign funds aimed at supporting civil society organisations in the country, especially the EEA-Norway grants. The complete interview can be found below or on the original webpage.


Poland – after the last Parliamentary election – has joined the group of countries that build their self-esteem by promoting national sovereignty, a chosen set of national values and in opposition to any foreign influence. In order to gain political capital, the ruling party’s politicians have started claiming that they are the sole authority when it comes to deciding which course the country should take. Apparently, this could also have a negative influence on civil society, especially so for organizations that obtain some financial support from abroad. Surprisingly to some, the government’s position has finally reached loggerheads with an unlikely diplomatic opponent, Norway.

The Polish-Norwegian chess game

During negotiations over the roughly €809 million from the European Economic Area and Norway Grants that was to be accorded to Poland, the discussion took an abrupt turn leaving the possibility that all the funds could be withheld. What was the cause of the dispute? The proposed €40 million which would be dedicated to supporting the development of civil society in Poland.

The disagreement started when the Law and Justice party (PiS), the conservative government currently in power, suggested that the operator for these funds should be a central agency responsible directly to the prime minister and composed, in large part, by representatives of the government. One could expect such course of events after reading a proposal of a new law announced in December 2016 that proposed establishing such a new entity which would provide centralised administration over the civil society sector (see its latest version) – called The National Centre for Civil Society Development.

After some rumours had been exchanged between civil-society sector experts, this idea was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, Piotr Gliński, at the end of March, 2017. Since then, we now officially know that the Polish government wants this entity to become the operator for the NGO component of the EEA and Norway Grants.

However, at same time and from different sources, it was learned that the Norwegian government is standing firm on its position that such an operator can in no way be associated with the government if it is to support the development of a strong, independent civil society. This position was officially reinforced by the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, in an interview on the 7th of May, after she had discussed the issue in Brussels with the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

As a result, we find ourselves in a potential stalemate, where the solution could be that one of the players (or both) will overturn the table. The real goal in this game is not which of the players is going to win, but what outcomes it will bring to the Polish civil society as a whole.

Why the Norwegian Funds are so important for the Polish government...

The stakes in this game are quite high if we put the whole situation in a context of the conditions of Polish civic sector functioning . Within the last edition of the Norwegian Funds (2014-2017), around 130 million PLN were spent supporting NGOs. It was an amount comparable to the funds dedicated to supporting NGOs’ operations by the main Polish government’s funding programme dedicated to the same purpose – a Citizens Initiative Fund, FIO (with an annual budget of 60 million PLN). Since PiS went into the last elections with a promise of supporting civil society development, the government needs the Norwegian funds to be able to show the result to their own supporters.

In the previous years, these funds were used to support (according to the guidelines developed with the Norwegians) such aims as increasing citizens’ participation in public life, promoting democratic values and human rights, encouraging advocacy and civic control and supporting vulnerable/minority groups (including anti-discrimination education and counteracting hate-speech). To say the least, none of these initiatives are on the top of current government’s political agenda.

In this context, being able to transfer Norwegian funds to realising one’s own political agenda and supporting the NGOs that are perceived as friendlier to the government’s platform (sometimes even directly related to the ruling party) must sound tempting for PiS. Unfortunately, the government’s fight to take control over how the Norwegian grants are distributed come at a time when there are growing divisions within the non-government sector. This might also be one of the effects of the defamation campaign that was started, with participation from the government’s representatives, against the Batory Foundation – the Polish operator of the last edition of Norwegian Funds. In this campaign, a coalition of conservative (government-friendly) NGOs was involved that was created ad hoc in February 2017. As a result, NGOs that are originally meant to build social bonds and foster dialogue within the society are being put in middle of a political fight and are finding themselves divided on ideological terms.

…and how these Funds can support civic sector, instead…

We have to also consider how important the issue of gaining financial support is for the Polish NGOs’ sector. From research conducted for the “Report on the State of Civil Society in the EU and Russia” (recently issued by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum), we know that several of the most important factors deteriorating the condition for civil society organisations’ (CSOs) operations are the poor level of private donations, weak state support and financing conditions in general. The latter aspect appeared to be especially crucial when considering the main challenges and problems that were indicated by the CSOs’ representatives in the survey. More specifically, the research pointed out problems with financial stability (and diversity) as well as public funding (especially from EU funds) and the lack of awareness to sector needs within the society and authorities.

After being asked about their own organisations, the same CSOs’ representatives highlighted the reduction of funds for activity and the need to search for them from diversified sources as the most significant challenge. In addition, organisational problems, such as a lack of human resources, work overload, a lack of knowledgeable employees and even threats to their future existence appeared. The CSOs working on human rights, especially with different minority groups, are in the worst position as they operate within the public discourse, which has become more discriminatory and based on hate speech and which generally does not garner any reaction from those in power (for more – see: Polish case study in the “Report on the State of Civil Society in the EU and Russia”).

What can happen next?

When the future of the Norwegian funds is concerned, it seems that we have two main possible scenarios. The negotiations between the Polish and Norwegian governments can stay frozen, which means that Poland wouldn’t get any of the funds from the whole €809 million until a solution is found. A similar situation has already happened in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s government in 2014 also wanted to take over control of the Norwegian founds for local CSOs and which ended with the Norwegians stopping the transfer of all their funds to Hungary for more than one year. It might be hard to imagine that the Polish government will resign from getting such an amount of money, but recently we have heard about other economically irrational ideas (i.e. related to the EU refugee relocation mechanism). And this decision can always be rationalised to the public as a form of protection of Polish interests from outside influence. However, the negotiations will probably be continued in order to reach an agreement.

If they fail, another possibility is that the funds dedicated to civil society will be separated from the whole sum dedicated to Poland. In such a case, the EEA and Norway Financial Mechanisms Office in Brussels will choose independently an operating entity in Poland. The Norwegian Prime Minister has already suggested that this is a possible outcome, and it would mean that the table has not been overturned for the Polish NGOs.

And what about the Polish civic sector? Well, its life without the Norwegian funds would not be strewn with roses; however, it already has gone through difficult times. This situation has also motivated CSOs to act; the sector has started to organise itself by establishing several thematic coalitions. Some CSOs started changing the mode of their operation and have opened themselves up more to the people, building or enlarging circles of their followers and supporters. All of these facts have created some potential for counteracting the main problems of the Polish civic sector that have been pointed out for years – the CSOs are too dependent on public support and separate from the society. Once they will overcome these issues due to adopting new internal arrangements and innovative methods for CSOs’ operations, the civil society in Poland may still benefit from its current struggles. It can come out stronger than before by learning and prevailing over the situation it faces now.

Nantes Creative Generation: call for application – Forum 2017

The Forum, which takes place every year in the autumn, aims to bring together young people to present their innovative and inspirational projects linked to citizenship. The 2017 Forum will take place in Nantes on 25-28 October.

Everywhere in Europe, from Amsterdam to Séville, from Warsaw to Nantes, the youth engage and innovate in order to strengthen life quality in their community. Developing relations between citizens, solidarity, protection of the environment, artistic collaboration – every initiative is unique but all of them pursue a common objective : to strengthen the notion of “living together”.

In order to allow these young people to meet, to learn and perhaps to experiment with new forms of projects with a European dimension, the Nantes Creative Generations Forum brings together every year participants from Nantes and Europe to present a concrete initiative. The objective is to encourage and stimulate European exchanges so that they can go further together. As well as showcasing their own projects, participants will have the chance to learn from peers across Europe and to gain better understanding of the European dimension of local projects. A unique opportunity to develop a project, reinforce / create a network, exchange good practices, strengthen English skills, etc.

In order to apply for the NCG Forum, you can fill in the online form by clicking here. For any further information, you can visit the official website of the NCG project.