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Amid the argument over the rule of law in certain EU member states, civil society needs strengthening as an embodiment of European values.
The European Union is built on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights—three mutually reinforcing pillars. At the heart of democracy, freedom of thought, freedom of expression and critical thinking shape the functioning of our societies.
What makes a democracy vibrant is public debate: ideas are articulated and confront each other. And one of the important sources of this articulation of ideas is civil society.
Civil society not only nurtures freedom of expression and association as intrinsic values but relies on these rights to function properly. The work of civil-society organisations (CSOs), often seen (or made to be seen) as controversial, is an essential ingredient of democracy, just as are free speech and elections free from interference.
But civil society needs a safe and enabling environment. That civic space has been shrinking in parts of Europe was widely documented even before the pandemic hit. The adoption this month by the European Parliament of my report on this theme is crucial in the current political environment. We need to act now—or some countries might divert way too far from the path of European values.
When fundamental rights, democratic principles or the rule of law are eroded or even under attack, CSOs play a key role in raising awareness, advocating for their protection and mobilising in their defence. Civil society is thus critical to realising the values underpinning the European Union, as enshrined in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.
Yet in acting to defend or elaborate these values, CSOs often become the targets of policies and measures trying to limit the space in which they operate. This shrinking of civic space has many forms and takes place at many levels—from unintended administrative obstructions to deliberate assaults on the very existence of civil society and its representatives.
Time and time again, CSOs have stood up when democracy has been under threat. We have seen their resilience in Hungary or Poland or wherever democratic backsliding has happened in the EU. This role in defending our democracies cannot however be taken for granted: some governments continue to pursue policies fundamentally at odds with European values and can marginalise the most vulnerable groups in our societies—just by introducing discriminatory laws or decisions, or initiating smear campaigns against organisations that dare to speak up for these groups.
Shy in standing up
Unfortunately, the deterioration of civic space can be directly linked to the EU’s shyness in standing up for these most basic values. This diffidence is also responsible for the concern that ‘hybrid regimes’ could evolve and become cemented in Europe.
From the outset, the EU should have adopted a strong political response, instead of hiding behind a legal approach. Two phenomena are particularly insidious.
We see increasing recourse to measures and narratives which have a chilling effect on civic space, bullying CSOs, activists and citizens into self-censorship—often the mere prospect of their application is enough to obtain the desired effect. And government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) emerge, undermining the very essence of civil society while misappropriating public funds.
Neither of these features can be fully grasped within a narrowly legal approach. Outwith their capture, governance systems such as that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary have consolidated. They have become laboratories for policies and narratives stigmatising and silencing independent and critical voices. Restrictions on civic space and pluralism are becoming increasingly normalised.
Fragmented and incomplete
It is not that the EU is not doing anything. What it is doing is fragmented and incomplete and serious gaps remain.
For example, the European Commission’s rule-of-law report mentions civic space but does not go as far as to dedicate a structured chapter to it. The commission needs to elaborate a civil-society strategy, which would bring all tools together and summon up new ones.
Also required is better and systematic monitoring, establishing a civic-space index which would feed into the rule-of-law report. We must ensure that EU law cannot be used to undermine civic space, by including a civic-space check in impact assessments.
Attacks on CSOs must be prevented and, when this fails, those responsible must be prosecuted accordingly. It is also critical to protect civic actors from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
We need too to provide financial protection for civil society. While exposing GONGOs and making sure no EU funding goes to them, it is important to unlock various sources of support—private, philanthropic and individual, including cross-border—and ensure CSOs can be legitimate recipients of all types.
Last but not least, we must adopt at the EU and member-state levels coherent policy frameworks to enable meaningful CSO participation in, and access to, decision-making.
As a political organisation, the European Parliament needs to focus on the political answers to these and coming challenges and must press the commission to act promptly when civic space is being threatened. Meanwhile, in our member states, we must keep fighting for a more democratic, just and humane Europe.