On 9 May, the Conference on the Future of Europe adopted the conclusions and recommendations discussed over the last year. Importantly, these proposals recognise the important role of civil society at national and European level and call for actions to safeguard civic freedoms and civil society organisations (CSOs) in Member States and to engage CSOs at European level through the meaningful implementation of civil dialogue. The final report also stresses the need of a comprehensive European civil society strategy, a call coming from across Europe as well as from the European Parliament resolution 2021/2103(INI) of 8 March 2022 on the shrinking space for civil society in Europe.
We’ve had many chances to witness the role played by CSOs in upholding human rights, democracy and rule of law across Europe, as well as the threats they face because of this watchdog role, including criminalisation (as it’s happening, for example, in Poland, Italy and Lithuania). The recent case of state surveillance on human rights defenders in Spain is yet another blatant example of a worrying trend affecting many EU Member States.
While the EU has recently started several promising initiatives to mainstream the acknowledgement of the fundamental contribution played by civil society, they mostly address in a piecemeal manner some of the most urgent problems with which CSOs are being confronted. An overarching solution empowering and protecting civil society has yet to surface. Better participation of civil society in the policy-making and agenda setting would allow EU policies to respond in a more meaningful way to the needs, concerns, aspirations and rights of people living in Europe, resulting in greater popular ownership and trust in institutions.
It is now urgent for the European Union to take action! In order to promote a thriving civic space at EU and national level and respond to the challenges and gaps described above, the European Commission should launch a proactive EU strategy towards open civic space and resilient civil society. This EU Civil Society Strategy should give “genuine political recognition to the crucial role played by CSOs in the realisation of democratic values and policies” by:
- Integrating all existing tools;
- Filling monitoring, support and protection gaps;
- Clearly linking monitoring and reporting tools to EU enforcement mechanisms (such as infringement procedures and rule of law conditionality) to ensure timely and effective follow-up action.
In its recently released report, the European Civic Forum (ECF) points at gaps and challenges in the European legislative framework regulating activities that affect the operations of civil society. While most of the monitoring and research has focused on how obstacles and attacks affect civil society at the national level, “Towards vibrant European civic and democratic space – The case for a European civil society strategy and preliminary reflections on the gaps, challenges and opportunities to be addressed” clearly shows that there are also European drivers and implications.
Building on broadly shared proposals for a way forward for a vibrant European civic space through a EU civil society strategy, hence, the aim of this ECF report is finding answers to the following questions:
- What role do civic organisations play at EU level and what effects does shrinking civic space has on European values and policies?
- How does EU law affect civic space?
- What tools are available to EU institutions for empowering, engaging, supporting and protecting civic organisations and what gaps should be addressed?
- What is the way forward?
Check the ECF report overview out in its factsheet here.
Download the full ECF report here: European civil society strategy report 2022_European Civic Forum