Press Release: Civic freedoms declined over past five years despite EU democracy agenda, new report finds

23 May 2024 | Press

  • Civic freedoms in decline in the EU and Western Balkans
  • EU policies contributes to shrinking space for civil society
  • Restrictions against protests showing solidarity with the Palestinian people across the EU

Ahead of the EU elections, a new report released by the European Civic Forum finds that overall, civic freedoms have deteriorated in Europe during the last five years. After taking office in 2019, the European Commission leadership committed to a “new push for European Democracy”. However, while the Commission has introduced a range of important measures to boost democracy, the report finds that space for civil society has continued to shrink, indicating that the EU must do more, better and differently to support and protect civil society.

The report also includes 15 country chapters. Several EU member states have experienced significant deterioration in civic freedoms, in countries ranging from France to Italy, Greece and Spain.


Civic space continued to shrink in 2023

In 2023, civic space continued to shrink in several EU countries. For example, member states have introduced legislation on transparency of foreign funding, in relation to foreign interference, which resembles “foreign agents” laws abroad and is likely to stigmatise civil society.

Attacks through legal harassment, SLAPPs, criminalisation and vilification remain a concern, and structured involvement and dialogue with civil society in policy-making remains weak. Moreover, civil society continued to experience a wide range of funding challenges in 2023, pushing organisations to remain in a starvation cycle.

Despite this, civil society, civic actors and human rights defenders continued to mobilise and push back against democratic backsliding, breaches of the rule of law, and direct attacks on civic freedoms.


Right to protest increasingly restricted

The trend of restricting the right to protest intensified. Authorities have cracked down on climate movements through surveillance, legal harassment, infiltration of movements and criminalisation, including in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Serbia, Spain.

Following the escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine, at least 12 member states, including Germany, France and Italy, have taken disproportionate measures to ban protests in solidarity with Palestine on the vague grounds of “national security’” and “public order”. Authorities have responded to these protests through the use of excessive force, including physical violence, tear gas and kettling.

Commenting on the restrictions, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer Aarti Narsee said:

“Increasingly, governments and European Institutions are showing double standards. On the one hand, they claim to defend democracy and fundamental rights, including environmental rights. On the other hand, they silence dissent on these very issues.

“Racialised people, ethnic and religious minorities and other excluded groups are disproportionately impacted by these repressions.”


EU policies are contributing to shrinking civic space

Increasingly, civic space is not only influenced by national developments but also by EU laws and policies.

Despite important developments, such as the EU’s Rule of Law monitoring process, EU policies are contributing to shrinking the space for civil society.

For example, the EU’s militarised approach to migration policies, such as the New Pact for Migration, will lead to further systematic violations of migrants’ rights, while criminalising migrants and those defending them. As part of the Defence of Democracy package, the proposed foreign funding directive risks stigmatising civil society and legitimising restrictive foreign agents’ laws in several member states, which mirror restrictive laws in Russia and Georgia.


Next EU Commission must take urgent action to reverse this trend

The report outlines a number of urgent recommendations for the European Commission to take. Principle among these is the development of a comprehensive European Civil Society Strategy to address the whole range of challenges faced by civil society.

“If the incoming mandate of the EU institutions is serious about its commitment to protecting democracy, it should adopt a comprehensive European Civil Society Strategy. This strategy should provide a coherent compass throughout all EU policy-making processes to support, protect and enhance the space for civil society in Europe,” – Giada Negri, Research and Advocacy Coordinator, European Civic Forum



About ECF

European Civic Forum (ECF) is a pan-European network of more than 100 associations and NGOs across 30 European countries. Founded in 2005 by our member organisations, we have spent nearly two decades working to protect civic space, enable civic participation and build civil dialogue for more equality, solidarity and democracy in Europe.

Note about the report: You can access the full report here. The report includes a horizontal analysis of the EU and the Western Balkans, 15 country chapters from EU member states, one regional chapter on the Western Balkans, and one chapter on the cross-cutting trend of restrictions on Palestine solidarity in the EU.


Benjamin Goodwin, Communications and Campaigns Officer, European Civic Forum:

Aarti Narsee, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer, European Civic Forum: