Protecting and expanding civic space in Europe – a year of civil society consolidation

16 December 2022 | Civic Space, EU Civil Society Strategy, Op-Ed

2022 has been nothing if not an eventful year. As we began to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we were met immediately by another crisis: war came once again to our continent. At the time, we condemned the invasion of Ukraine and expressed our solidarity with the victims. We continue to do so. The difficult economic situation we are now facing, partly as a result of the crises mentioned above, partly a structural effect of decades of misguided policy, once again falls hardest on those most vulnerable. As we highlighted in Civic Pride Month, it is democratic civil society that comes to the aide of those in need when so often governments fail to deliver.

At European Civic Forum, the overriding theme of 2022 has been the growing momentum for a strategic approach to protecting and expanding civic space in Europe. Earlier this month, the European Commission released its annual report on the application of the Charter on Fundamental Rights. The report echoes much of our language, recognising the need to protect, engage, support and empower civil society and proposing targeted dialogue with stakeholders on civic space. We welcome this, and assert it is vital that this dialogue is open, participatory, transparent, and inclusive, and that it produces concrete tools and recommendations.

The report was published as civic actors, donors and institutional representatives were gathering in Brussels to work together towards a strategic approach for an open civic space in Europe. This convening was organised by ECF and Civil Society Europe to bring forward our work on this issue ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2024.


During the event, participants identified a wide range of issues to work together on, including information-sharing, alliance-building, funding restrictions, recognising and mapping allies, protection mechanisms, capacity building and co-creation, fighting disengagement with and distrust in democracy, and, eventually, working towards a common vision for another world and narratives that empower people.

We also had the chance to exchange with policymakers, particularly with European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova, as well as MEP Sergey Lagodinsky, Marie-Hélène Boulanger and Florian Geyer from DG JUST, Katju Holkeri, Ministry of Finance, Finland, Ima Gomez Lopez, Commission Secretariat General and Wal Heller from the FRA.


But this convening was not just about identifying issues and priorities, it was about building networks, trust, motivation, and momentum in the process. It was the latest manifestation of work that has been going on for years, but that really got off the ground in 2022.

In March, our campaigning led the European Parliament to recommend an EU Civil Society Strategy.

Building on this momentum, in May, we published ‘Towards a Vibrant European Democratic and Civic Space’ – a report setting out the case for a strategy.

In June, with Civil Society Europe, we coordinated an open letter to President von der Leyen, urging her to include a Civil Society Strategy in the 2023 Work Programme. The letter was signed by more than 350 civil society organisations!

In September, we were disappointed by Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address…

But in October, we regained ground. The Commission’s Work Programme included a cross-border statute, and a pledge that the upcoming Defence of Democracy package will include measures to develop “civic space and citizen participation to bolster democratic resilience from within.” We’ll hold them to that.

In November, we focused back in on why all of this matters at the fifth European Civic Academy. ECF co-president Raffaella Bolini reminded us that our strength is [our] capability to converge and create unity”.

And in December, our convening gathered about 100 civil society actors across Europe, as well as foundations and members of European and international institutions.

We now take this work forward in 2023, armed with momentum, inspiration, new learnings and greater trust.

As we close another year, we renew our solidarity with those who are being let down by the world we live in and those who are fighting to change it. Those who are suffering as result of violence. Those who are struggling through the winter without access to heating or the means to pay for it. Those who are attacked for fighting for their rights and the rights of others. Those without a place to call home. Democratic civil society exists to make the world a better place. We go into 2023 more united and with greater strength to achieve this. Happy holidays to all who are celebrating!