Shrinking space for civil society across Europe: what can be done?

Shrinking space for civil society across Europe: what can be done?

In the past years, progressive civil society has been under increased pressure in the EU, facing a backlash from more radical forces working in the same field: the rise of conservative civil society. These smearing campaigns and threats have been supported by several governments in Europe that restricted and attempted to delegitimize the work of those organizations not in support of their politics. Through anti-NGO legislation, restrictions on the right to protest and smear campaigns against international donors such as the now infamous Hungarian anti-Soros campaign, space for civil society across Europe has been reduced to an alarming rate.

Ahead of European Parliament elections and a new European Commission, and with the EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights on 26 and 27 November 2018, EU networks and civil society organizations have gathered around a roundtable co-organized by the Open Society European Policy Institute and the Open Society Justice Initiative to discuss a follow-up on some proper action points for the European Union on civic space and fundamental rights.

As a result, SOLIDAR Foundation, along with other signatories, supports 5 key action points aimed at protecting and enhancing the role of civil society organizations in promoting human rights, such as:

  • To recognize and speak up for civil society
  • Secure an enabling space for civil society
  • Monitor, document and analyse
  • Protect civil society from attacks
  • Take legal action to uphold the role of CSOs

This statement comes amid growing concerns that the rise of extreme right-wing forces and movements have taken up greater space in Europe. A recent report published by Carnegie Europe and edited by Richard Young aimed at understanding the increasing mobilization of conservative civil society.  The report shows that this so-called ‘illiberal rise’ and extensive support for conservative civil society has also brought increased attention and support to smaller and more grass-roots organizations, allowing more chances to withstand international or national funding cuts.

The report, published last month, highlights the tools and instruments that have permitted for the success and rise of these conservative organizations: the shift from what we formerly knew as conservative and liberal forces to illiberal ones, “as these organizations do not ask for less state intervention so the border between illiberal and undemocratic is very thin”, explains Young.

The use of social media, technologies and involvement of young people has created this strong online presence for conservative civil society, as shown in the case of Brazil with the extensive use of political communication. Another important factor is the use of national or EU rule of law and rules to block or restrain civil society, such as in Poland’s cyclical assemblies to block protests, or in Romania’s use of the GDPR and anti-money laundering directive to close down NGOs.

In January 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) also released a report linking for the first time the challenges faced by civil society organizations working on human rights across the European Union.  The report puts an emphasis on securing rights as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights for freedom of assembly and of association (Article 12), and freedom of expression and information (Article 11), through protecting and maintaining an inclusive regulatory environment, as well as securing finance and funding and having a safe space for civil society as well as for exchange and dialogue.

SOLIDAR Foundation supports the establishment and keeping of an appropriate space for civil society and adds that the role of citizenship education on the importance of civil society and democratic participation is vital to the good functioning of NGOs and CSOs in connection with the EU’s role of protecting and safeguarding fundamental rights.  Here is the full statement that can be downloaded here.

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