EDITO: One step closer to cross-border associations

27 March 2024 | Op-Ed

Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to back the proposed European Cross Border Associations Directive (ECBA), marking a milestone in the decades-long calls for an EU-wide legal status. The institutions must now ensure that the final text ensures that fundamental rights are protected.

The ECBA seeks to make it easier for associations to work across EU member states by creating a common standard for registering and recognising a cross-border association in the EU.

The interest in an EU-wide legal framework for non-profit organisations is not new. While European leaders raced ahead to create a single market and remove barriers to trade across member states, the non-profit sector and the freedom to associate cross-border was left behind. During this time, there were many calls, and the ECF campaigned actively, for a cross-border statute,  with the European Commission publishing a legislative proposal in 1993 – only to be met with opposition from a small handful of member states.

As a result of this inaction, CSOs wanting to carry out cross-border activities face a wide array of financial, legal, and administrative challenges, and often find themselves subject to discrimination. Put together, these issues hinder the freedoms of association and participation and are a barrier to the emergence of a strong pan-European civil society.

At ECF, we have been working on this issue for almost two decades. In 2011, we launched and led the European Alliance for the Statute of the European Association (EASEA), made up of 39 CSOs, to put the issue on the agenda. We succeeded in getting the backing of the European Parliament, but the European Commission decided to put it on hold until the Member States agreed upon a Statute for the European Foundation. Unfortunately, with no progress on the latter, no further action was taken.

Suffice to say, we are very pleased to see that this time, real progress is being made. Under the current proposal, CSOs would have the right to register as a European Cross-Border Association under national law. These organisations would then be automatically recognised by other member states, ensuring that CSOs would only have to register in one place, and harmonising rules on mobility. In effect, this would create a new legal form of non-profit associations dedicated to cross-border activities.

Within Civil Society Europe, we are working hard to ensure that the ECBA lives up to its potential, while also avoiding potential pitfalls.

Due to the strong element of mutual recognition and equal treatment in the ECBA, we believe that it has the potential to become a strong benchmark for national legislation on the establishment and operations of CSOs, while at the same time being flexible enough to adapt to different national situations and the diversity of non-profit organisations.

However, we are concerned that under the current proposals, member states could justify dissolving an ECBA or restricting its funding on the grounds of violating “EU values,” a term that could be interpreted very broadly in order to crack down on associations, in a similar vein to the case in France with the “Contract of commitment to republican principles”. Negotiators on the final text must ensure that any restrictions placed on ECBAs are necessary, proportionate and in line with international standards and the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.

The adoption of the ECBA would be a milestone in the push for an enabling environment for civil society – but it is only one step on the way. It must be followed by comprehensive measures to protect civic space (the operating environment for CSOs) and to make sure their voices are heard. That’s why ECF helped launch the Civil Society for EU campaign, made up of more than 200 European and national CSOs. Ahead of the European elections in June, we’re calling for a European Civil Society Strategy and a Civil Dialogue agreement – to protect and expand civic space and to ensure that the voice of civil society is heard. You can back our campaign here!