2020 has been characterised by the COVID-19 health emergency that produced consequences on our societies, economies and democracies that are unprecedented in Europe in times of peace. We have changed our life to protect ourselves and others. We have all been expected to act responsibly as individuals and as a community.
On the one hand, the need to provide a quick and strong response in a short time has increased the use of exceptional powers by the Governments at the expenses of democratic checks and balances. Some Governments took advantage of this exceptional situation to legitimate their attempt to concentrate powers in their hands but, even in countries where governments have been praised for their balanced approach, the situation of exception has exposed serious risks for European democracies, adding to the trend of deterioration documented in previous years.
On the other hand, 2020 has been characterised by an awakening of active citizenship to ensure at the widest possible scale effective access to basic rights that the crisis has put at risk. Many have found creative ways to be useful to their communities, to offer social and cultural tools against isolation, to volunteer for providing support to the weak and vulnerable which often happen to be the poorest, to act as watchdogs vis a vis the consequences of the democratic and social crises, and to propose societal alternatives.
Everywhere, organised civic actors, as well as citizens and people spontaneously, have been and are in the front line to witness the precarious situations people suffer from, trying to respond to people’s needs, to alert on the limitations and adverse consequences of implemented public policies, to react against abuses of power, to put solidarity for all at the centre of the response to the crisis. Civic space under the lockdown has been narrowed but, even under detrimental conditions, has shown a high level of dynamism.
The European Civic Forum, together with its members, has contributed to this dynamism and observed these trends through the Civic Space Watch, a platform collecting resources on threats to fundamental rights as well as positive initiatives, including those aimed at countering these threats. Over 350 resources collected in the period between January to October 2020.
The report showcases the challenges civil society faced throughout the year 2020, with a particular focus on how the public measures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic affected civic space, and how civic actors responded. It contains a general analysis of EU trends of deterioration and expansion observed in 2020, seven interviews with inspiring activists that protected human rights during the lockdown and six case studies.
Civic space in Slovenia was downgraded from ‘Open’ to ‘Narrowed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor (LINK)
Slovenian civil society covers wide-ranging areas of action, with relatively high levels of volunteering. Yet, CSOs have long experienced problems of limited financial and human resources, especially for advocacy. While vilification by political figures occasionally targeted civic actors, particularly in the field of environment and migration, the legislative environment significantly improved in spring 2018 when an NGO Law – among other things – defined the term “NGO” and created an NGO fund to strengthen the sector, including the long-term employment rate. Nevertheless, a rapid deterioration of civic space and rule of law has characterised 2020, after the formation of a new right-wing Government coinciding with the declaration of the pandemic in the country. Since mid-March, the Government has repeatedly attempted and often succeeded in changing democratic rules and limiting dialogue with the sector. These moves found the opposition of civil society and citizens protesting and revitalising Slovenian civic mobilisations. Read the case study and interview with protesters that are in the streets since April! (LINK)
In May, we launched the call for nomination Stories from the lockdown aiming at discovering and collecting inspiring stories of activists, associations, movements or groups of citizens who are organising solidarity and civic contestation and making policy proposals to ensure rights are at the centre of the response amid the COVID-19 crisis in face of a restricted civic space. Choosing only 7 stories out of such diverse, important and moving applications was not an easy task. In the selection, we tried to ensure a fair territorial and thematic representation of various challenges and diverse rights-related issues. We are happy to introduce you the seven laureates for this year’s Civic Pride Award:
The We are fair initiative is a Czech coalition of six non-profits that advocates for a marriage equality bill in the country. During the COVID-19, the initiative raised funding for two of the most affected groups in society – single parents and artists – and for students sewing masks. They also advocated to allow non-married couples across borders to be reunited:
The Greek Forum of Refugees is an association of refugees and migrants’ communities based in Athens. The main goal of the network is to empower these communities to advocate for their rights and their obligations as potential citizens of Greece and Europe. During the COVID-19, they raised funding to distribute voucher to use in supermarkets to migrants and homeless people.
“A big issue was that many members had lost their jobs; this was the case for many people in Greece. Their first need was to survive inside the house, to find what to eat. We had a meeting inside the Greek Forum of Refugees, and we decided to start a fundraising online to collect money and provide vouchers so that people could buy food. We raised over 5000 Euro. We bought a lot of vouchers from the supermarket and distributed them to different communities and to homeless people without discrimination.” – Moussa Sangaré, Ivorian Community of Greece, Greek Forum of Refugees.
The Women on the Road Foundation is the first foundation in Poland led by a refugee woman. The group meets to sew clothes and discuss feminist topics as a form of integration. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, they started producing masks to distribute to the entire community and across Poland. They sewed over 31’000 masks.
“We were afraid that we were not doing enough and not helping enough people, so we were even sleeping here at school to make more masks. So far, we sewed 31’000. We distributed masks to all Poland: in Churches, hospitals, nursing homes, schools… To our neighbours, Roma people, refugees, homeless people thought associations that support them…. whomever asked us on Facebook could come and pick up the masks” – Khedi Alieva, Fundacja Kobiety Wędrowne.
People of Slovenia have been taking to the streets for over 20 weeks in a row to protest against the right-wing government and its corruption scandals erupted since it took office in March 2020. A group of citizens initiated a cyclists’ protests early in March, suddenly, the protest spread across Slovenia and each Friday there is a special action connected with the most recent developments.
“We have a history of protest against right-wing governments in Slovenia. In 2012-2013, we had four huge demonstrations against the then right-wing government. They were called ‘Rising up’. People managed to make the government fall. But what is really unique about today’s protests is that people are coming to the streets every Friday. At the beginning, I thought that they would die down during the summer, but this did not happen [because] the government does not stop. […] Every week something like this happens. In addition, social inequalities are getting bigger and bigger” – Nika Kovač, Institute of the 8th March.
SEDOAC, the Active Domestic Service Association, was created in 2008 by domestic and care workers of different nationalities, to advocate for the full equality of their rights and for dignified working conditions of all domestic and care workers in Spain. During the lockdown, the association carried out a strong political advocacy campaign demanding measures to support domestic and care workers.
“The Pandemic has highlighted Spain’s healthcare crisis and how fragile its care system is. The pandemic further aggravated the working conditions of domestic workers. […] We managed to attract the interest of different media about the situation of domestic workers so that they were talking about it on a weekly basis raising awareness about the value of our work among the public. The pressure on the Government was effective, as it was possible to establish an extraordinary subsidy for domestic workers. More than 30,000 workers have requested it and we hope that they will soon start receiving it.” – Carol Elias, SEDOAC.
The Wheel is Ireland’s representative and support organisation for civil society. During the lockdown, the Wheel, together with a coalition of NGOs, secured a €40 million package of supports for community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises in Ireland, a symbol of important recognition by government of the vital work being done by organisations across civil society to support the most vulnerable during the Covid-19 crisis.
“When the social isolation began in March, civic organisations were faced with two big challenges. The first was how they were going to deliver the essential services in the socially isolated world. The second was how they were going to cope with the collapse in the fundraised and earned income to cover the cost of their work.[…] We pulled together a coalition of 15 Irish membership organisations to identify the scale of the problem and then to seek some governmental support for organisations so they could keep going with their activities.” – Ivan Cooper, The Wheel.
#Unteilbar (Indivisible) is a German movement standing for a society in solidarity and indivisibility of human rights. In 2018, the collective organised one of the biggest protests in the last decade in Germany against the far-right increasing presence in the public space and for a convergence of civil society’s struggles. In June 2020, ten cities demonstrated for a solidarity approach to tackling of the pandemic.
“Masses of people rallying together are the life of social movements, but we could not do that not only because of the government’s restrictions, but because we wanted people to feel safe going out in the streets. #SoGehtSolidarisch was both a political message with all of these demands and connecting struggles, but it was also an experiment of demonstrating differently, in a safe way during the pandemic. This is how we came up with the ribbon of solidarity. It was very colourful; it was very nice. It was long lines of people, keeping the distance but being connected through the ribbon. And it worked.” – Corinna Genschel, #Unteilbar.