EDITO – EU institutions and strengthening civic space: Giving with one hand and taking with the other?

02 November 2022 | Advocacy, Op-Ed

The European Commission’s inclusion of a cross-border statute for associations and measures on civic space in its 2023 work programme are encouraging signs. Parliament’s call for France-style restrictions on access to funding, particularly targeting Muslim organisations, is a very worrying development which must not go ahead.


2023 Work Programme

In June, more than 350 civil society organisations came together to call on the European Commission to include plans for a European Civil Society Strategy in its 2023 work programme. On its side, the European Parliament made a similar call. Despite this momentum, President von der Leyen’s State of the Union address in September was a disappointment, making no mention of civil society whatsoever.

It was a great relief, then, when the European Commission released its 2023 work programme which includes plans for a “legislative initiative on a statute for European cross-border associations”. This is something that the European Civic Forum has long campaigned for and is greatly needed. The document argues that this will “enable them to benefit fully from the freedoms offered by the single market” and to contribute to “citizens’ active engagement in civil society and democracy.”

In the “Defence of Democracy package” first announced in the State of the Union address there is a heavy focus on protecting democracy from “outside interests.” ECF has regularly pointed out that democracy is primarily in jeopardy for internal reasons, resulting from many citizens’ dissatisfaction with policy-making that does not answer their needs and expectations. It is good news to read that the package will now include measures to develop “civic space and citizen participation to bolster democratic resilience from within.” We very much welcome this encouraging language, but must stress again that to increase public participation, democracy has to deliver on people’s expectations. We look forward to engaging further with the Commission on this in the coming months, as the strengthening of democracy is key to making our societies inclusive.

Together, the Commission’s announcements could become steps towards building the strategic approach to European civil society we so urgently need. While the European Union has started to implement tools to foster and protect democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights which are under attack, the actions taken at the European level in support of civic actors’ activities have been limited in scope and impact. A recent report by the European Civic Forum outlined these limitations and built on broadly shared proposals to move forward for a vibrant European civic space through a European Civil Society Strategy. We now hope to develop a fruitful dialogue with the European institutions in the framework of the Commission work programme.


European Parliament calls to restrict CSOs’ access to funding

While the Commission prepares to potentially to give with one hand, the Parliament is attempting to take with the other.

On 19 October 2022, the European Parliament adopted a report on the draft general budget of the European Union for the financial year 2023. Two worrying amendments were added to the report (read them here and here) which criticise the European Commission for allegedly financing campaigns promoting the hijab and radical religious and political organisations, and call on the Commission “to impose to the beneficiary organisations of the CERV programme the signature of a Charter committing them to respect [EU values] before making funds available”.

This proposal, tabled by Renew MEPs mostly from France, makes negative assumptions about civil society organisations in general, and those working for Muslim rights in particular. It echoes a legislative measure introduced in France in 2021 in the framework of the law “on the respect of the republican principles,” known as the “Separatism Law”, which is already being used by officials to attempt to withdraw funding from CSOs. It must be noted that when appealed, almost all of these decisions are overturned in court as violating freedom of association. However, the administrative and financial burdens CSOs face in appealing these decisions are huge, their reputation is put in jeopardy, and this can intimidate and dissuade other organisations from engaging in similar activities.

Project proposals for EU funding are, of course, already assessed by the European Commission and approved based on eligibility and selection criteria. Contracts for CERV, one of the major funding schemes for civil society in the EU, already have a binding section on ethics and values (such as human dignity, the rule of law and human rights) that beneficiary organisations must respect, failing which they could face reduced or withdrawn grants, or administrative sanctions.

These amendments resonate with the unsuccessful attempt made last year by France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to persuade the European Commission to withdraw the funding of an EU project application granted to a French organisation working with Muslim women. After looking to the issue, the Commission approved the funding, denying any legitimate concern in Darmanin’s demand.

Unfortunately, MEPs have not learned from the decisions in French courts. This latest move is a dangerous and unacceptable attack on civil society. We urge the European Commission to reject this call from the Parliament and remain alert to further developments.

The EU institutions should focus on the measures announced in the work programme. While the Commission is clearly reluctant to commit to a comprehensive Civil Society Strategy in the current mandate, if developed correctly, the Commission’s announcements could form building blocks for future actions by the new Commission following the European elections in 2024. We will engage in a pan-European campaign with our grassroots constituencies and partners and in the frame of Civil Society Europe to carry this legacy forward.