EDITO: As the EU elections approach, civic space continues to shrink

29 May 2024 | Op-Ed

The European elections kick off in just one week. Over four days, millions of voters will go to the polls to elect new members of the European Parliament, at a crucial moment for Europe.

These elections come after a difficult five years, with many feeling anxious for their futures. But while some seek to capitalise on this to divide us and force us to compete for rights and dignity, we want to send a clear message: there is another way! By listening to people’s concerns and delivering on their needs, our representatives can build a different future and regain trust. That means making peace, justice, and human, social and environmental security the core principles and values that guide EU policies.

Civil society organisations work towards these goals every day, often stretching way beyond their means to assist those in need. They provide a vital platform for people to express their needs and beliefs outside of the election cycle and channel these towards policymakers. To build a future different from the past, they must be recognised as key partners.

This is all the more important because there has been another trend over the last five years: continually shrinking civic space across Europe.

When the current European Commission administration took office in 2019, they committed to a “new push for European Democracy”. The Commission has introduced a range of important measures, including the Rule of Law monitoring process and the recent recommendations on civic engagement.

However, our Civic Space Report 2024, published last week, 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.

For example, in 2023, several member states, and the European Commission itself, introduced laws on the transparency of foreign funding which resemble “foreign agents” laws in Russia and Georgia and are likely to have a negative impact on civil society.

Legal harassment and SLAPPs, continue in several member states, while structured dialogue with civil society remains weak. Moreover, civil society continues to experience wide-ranging funding challenges.

Restrictions on the right to protest have also intensified. Authorities have cracked down on climate movements through surveillance, infiltration of movements and criminalisation in several member states.

Meanwhile, 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”.

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

To reverse this worrying trend, the EU must take urgent action. That means, principally, developing a comprehensive EU Civil Society Strategy – to protect, support and expand civic space across Europe, recognising the essential role civil society organisations play in defending and giving life to democracy.

But it also means rebuilding trust by implementing policies that reflect and deliver on people’s needs. To do so, policymakers must reach an agreement on civil dialogue, introducing regular, meaningful and structured dialogue between civil society and policymakers across the policymaking process.

With these policies, the European institutions can take a positive step towards a Europe of Democracy, Solidarity, and Rights for all where people are listened to, where no one is left behind and where international law and human dignity is upheld.

On 6-9 June, let’s vote for MEPs who share this vision for the future.