2022 showed once again that civil society is a cornerstone of democracy. But across the EU, NGOs, associations, and movements are under increasing pressure. As ECF’s Civic Space Report 2023 and recent policy dialogue demonstrate, to create resilient democracies, we must empower civil society. The European Commission’s upcoming Defence of Democracy package must include robust measures to protect and expand civic space. In the longer run, the European Institutions should adopt a European Civil Society Strategy.
The latest edition of our annual civic space report, “Fighting for democratic empowerment and resilience”, was released earlier this month. The report demonstrates that, while civil society remains the bedrock of democracy, civic freedoms are under pressure across Europe. This includes legislation hampering civic freedoms; smear campaigns, verbal and physical attacks and legal harassment against human rights defenders and their organisations; over bureaucratisation of funding, especially EU funding, and a lack of accessible funding for grassroots CSOs.
In several member states, for example, there are restrictive laws which hamper the right to association and the activities of NGOs and associations. Following in the footsteps of Hungary, laws targeting NGOs receiving foreign funding have been discussed in Poland and Bulgaria.
In Germany, NGOs have been targeted for being too political, while in France, the current social unrest and street demonstrations against pensions reform are met with violent police repression, and the “Separatism law” requires any association applying for public financing to sign a “contract of commitment to Republican principles”.
CSOs and individual activists working on democracy, rule of law and human rights, as well as journalists, have faced smear campaigns, verbal and physical attacks and legal harassment through Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPPs).
In Poland, Abortion Dream Team activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was charged and found guilty of providing abortion pills to a woman who was in an unwanted pregnancy with an abusive partner. She was sentenced to eight months of community service. “It is us, the activists, who repair the damage the Polish anti-abortion act does every day,” she told the room at ECF, Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS’s policy dialogue last week. “I know that I would do it again”.
Our policy dialogue saw a series of testimonies from human rights defenders on the ground as well as panel discussions with representatives of the European Commission, the Swedish Presidency of the European Council, NGOs and the UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst.
Also speaking at the event was asylum seeker rights defender Sean Binder, who was arrested on charges of espionage and assisting smugglers. He explained how as a result of his and other activists’ long-running trials, other NGOs have ceased humanitarian missions, for fear of criminalisation.
What is driving this democratic erosion?
As European institutions look at how to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Europe, the root causes of democratic erosion must be diagnosed.
Democratic resilience requires both good inputs and good outputs. Participatory mechanisms which enable diverse voices to contribute to the democratic debate and a robust rule of law infrastructure are the key tools conducive to developing effective policies and measures. These inputs decisively contribute to make good policy-making possible.
Today democracy in Europe is facing pressure both on its inputs, as democratic backsliding unfolds across the EU, and its outputs, as many fear for their future and increasingly mistrust national institutions’ ability to deliver policies that will protect them.
Additionally, the implementation of civil dialogue and participation of CSOs in the policy-making at national level is often “ad hoc”, “informal”, or “tokenistic”. Public consultations, which are less effective than other mechanisms, are often the main avenue for civil society to provide input on proposed legislation, within short timeframes.
To create resilient democracies, the EU and member states must protect and empower civil society
Strengthening democracy requires a shared commitment of European institutions and member states. First and foremost, it requires putting in place coherent policies which link economic and social issues to respond to the vulnerabilities and insecurities in our societies. These include policies which combat social, cultural and regional inequalities, economic precariousness and redistributive policies aimed at solidarity, inclusiveness, social security and equality. European institutions must recognise that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights policies are interlinked with economic and financial ones.
To move in this direction, participatory mechanisms must be strengthened at both the EU and national level. True participation means that concerns are listened to and addressed through policy-making. Beyond consultations and citizens’ assemblies, there is a need for civil dialogue to be recognised and organised on an equal footing with social dialogue in the EU’s policy-making, in all areas of EU action and along all policy cycles. The full social and environmental impacts of national and EU legislation would be better balanced with economic aims, and fundamental rights would be taken into account more adequately when designing legislation and policies. Better and fairer policies would create more fertile ground for trust in democratic institutions. The EU must not miss this opportunity in its upcoming Defence of Democracy package.
Finally, strong democracies with a functioning rule of law rest on vibrant civic space. It is crucial that civil society actors are supported, protected and empowered and that their inputs are considered fundamental for policy-making. In the short-term, the European Commission should review the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) Programme to unlock its full potential and establish a protection mechanism to allow civil society to report on attacks and receive direct assistance. In the long-term, the European institutions must commit to a European Civil Society Strategy developing a vision of an open civic space and resilient civil society, giving genuine political recognition to the crucial role played by CSOs.
As ECF Secretary General Alexandrina Najmowicz said as she closed last week’s event, “to defend democracy, […] we need to enact democracy and to make it relevant to the people”. This is vital in order to rebuild popular support for democracy, protect civic space, and restore public trust.