Financing of Civil Society Organisations by the EU – a debate that goes beyond Brussels

By Oonagh Aitken, SOLIDAR Board member and Chief Executive at Volunteering Matters

Even with Brexit looming, I am keeping up my European commitments. As well as being President of Volonteurope (although all the hard work is done by our European Affairs team), I am also Treasurer of SOLIDAR, the social justice network, and sit on the Boards of both the European Civic Forum and Civil Society Europe. We are founder members of this last network which brings together networks of civil society organisations to enable engagement with the European Institutions.

Today, I attended the public hearing organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on the topic of the financing of civil society organisations by the EU. The topic is highly relevant for a number of reasons; the European Commission and Parliament are just about to go into the detailed negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework (MFF); we have seen a reduction in state funding for CSOs all across Europe; the 2014 – 2020 MFF while continuing to support CSOs had major amendments mid-term with new priorities emerging.

The hearing was well attended by Brussels based organisations and a few representatives from organisations based in member states. It brought together a wide range of speakers with a variety of perspectives. People not immersed in the CSO world – we usually say the voluntary and community sector in the UK – might wonder what all the fuss is about? For us, this funding is the lifeblood of community cohesion, participation in democratic institutions and decision-making, contributing to the dissemination and development of European values, advocating for human rights, volunteering and social action. Not to mention the contribution to the delivery of public services and the equivalent financial value of community and voluntary service. Europe would be poorer if its civil society were to be in decline.

For me, the highlight was Thomas Heckeberg’s presentation from the CSE financial working group. Thomas’ speech was a tour de force which described the changes that CSO funding had undergone – a move towards funds being spent on providing services often where the state was shrinking or failing and with the accompanying stringent evaluation criteria, diversification of funding so that more is coming from philanthropists and trusts and foundations, greater regulation. The report of the working group will call for the inclusion of volunteering activity with a financial value, the recognition of in-kind contributions, a reduction in the administrative burden and of harsh audit requirements, greater access to European Structural Funds for CSOs, development of the Erasmus + programme (a definite YES!), and the retention of development and aid funding. Other speakers mentioned the need for greater investment in the Europe for Citizens programme (another definite YES!), continuing surveillance of civic space and of the erosion of the rights to free association, keeping a close watch on legislation that aims to curtail the lobbying activities of CSOs.

Now the hard work begins for the EESC working group who will have to synthesise everything they heard today and at other hearings and from further submissions. But I am convinced that it will be a strong submission from Jean-Marc Roirant (President of ECF and of CSE) and his team and will have significant traction as the Commission, Council and Parliament come to decisions on the MFF for 2020 and beyond.