Shrinking civic space, in 2022, evokes real-life experiences for many people defending human rights: harassment through propaganda or social media, inciting statements by politicians, investigations or even legislation targeting the work or resources of civic groups. These actions are meant to intimidate human rights defenders, stigmatise them, weaken their credibility, turn their supporters and clients away, demoralise and burn out their staff, strongarm them into shifting their organisational focus to reactive mode, and force them to direct their resources towards fighting for survival and away from initiatives that foster cooperation with citizens.
Although these rights violations affect the way we live in Europe, why do they concern only a few engaged citizens who, in their outrage over failed national policies, mobilise empathy and courage to protest? The short and staple answer, as academics will tell you, is that we, as a Union, have not built a demos – a pan-European identity and awareness that, even though we fully appreciate our shared community of destiny, seeded by common laws, histories and institutions, does not collectively respond to regressive developments, although they concern not only one nation, but all of us.
How did we depart from the promises we made ourselves? When she took over the helm of the European Commission, President von der Leyen promised a Europe that protects and stands up for justice and values. This promise still awaits delivery when it comes to securing democracy, justice and values for every citizen. After long years of often lukewarm support by citizens for the EU, could it be the post-24 February moment that prompts us to value the Union anew, where our shared sentiments of community and belonging are anchored in a common project of peace and democracy, in contrast to the exclusion and aggression by neighbouring autocratising states? Can it make us care more about what goes on in our own EU space?
The mess we’re in
The loss of trust in democratic institutions and processes jeopardises democracy in Europe. The focus on building bureaucratic institutions and modes of technical collaboration – the movement of labour, capital and services across borders and the shared policies we have added onto this initial scaffolding – without strengthening citizens’ engagement with them has paradoxically weakened democracy in a number of EU member states. Where citizens no longer trust their institutions, those who are interested in eroding and dismantling democracy will seize the opportunity to do so. A recent study examined people’s attitudes about and experiences with democracy and shows that the real problem is not that most people prefer an alternative to democracy. The problem, rather, is an ambivalence towards democracy’s meaning and potential to deliver tangible results. This crisis of trust creates deep divisions between people and institutions, and in societies. For too many citizens, democracy evokes feelings of indifference and disappointment. Young people especially feel ignored by politics, and can’t see their concerns well represented. Just look at how young voters mostly abstained in the 2022 French parliamentary elections last week: 71 % of those aged 18-24 didn’t cast a ballot.
Civil society, as a constitutive element of a liberal democracy, is meant to build solid foundations based on citizens’ participation in democratic processes, and to hold government and institutions accountable to both the voters’ fickle choices and the more stable rule of law anchored in constitutionalism. In a number of EU countries, governments have been squeezing civic space, rendering it increasingly hard for civil society to operate unhindered. Many civil society activists and journalists working in the EU are affected by a pattern of abuse characteristic of illiberal authoritarian states elsewhere. This is particularly true for human rights defenders supporting migrants and refugees, LGBTIQ advocacy groups or those who investigate and uncover government corruption.
Protecting the space for civil society is not only important for citizens; it is also the way to strengthen the supranational legitimacy of the Union and secure public trust in its workings. EU institutions cannot implement concrete policies and safeguard European norms and values without the support of member state governments and their citizens. Both the Covid pandemic and the war on Ukraine highlight the critical role civil society plays during crises and why it can act as a crucial ally for governments as well as EU institutions – in the latter case, by launching and complementing efforts to shelter, feed, advise and support people affected as safely and quickly as possible. Action for protecting the climate is driven by awareness-raising campaigns powered by transnational movements. Likewise, when they promote human rights, equality, democracy, the rule of law and government accountability, civil society advocates for the values and rights that have become the EU’s DNA and make it a global standard-setter. Its contribution to EU integration itself has been vital.
Without it, dystopian scenarios of corruption going undetected, injustice not being brought to court and human rights abuses not being remedied could become the norm in Europe. What, you ask, is the problem? The problem is that the Commission has looked at European civil societies as either implementors of its policies or victims of backsliding. A blind spot has formed around the crucial functions civil societies perform and their agency.
Too little, too late? What EU institutions have been doing
When systemic signs of human rights and rule of law backsliding began to emerge in some member states in the early 2010s, the European Commission was slow to recognise the gravity of the problem. As Tomasso Pavone and R. Daniel Kelemen demonstrated, over time it lost its appetite to take member states to court for breaching EU values. Yet, in a spout of normative activism, it launched several strategies to better protect fundamental rights, democracy and rule of law, such as the EU anti-racism action plan 2020–2025, the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, the Strategy to strengthen the rule of law within the Union (2019) and the European democracy action plan (2020). Aiming to tackle rampant threats to press freedom, the Commission also recently unveiled plans for a European Media Freedom Act and a draft directive to protect journalists from abusive lawsuits (SLAPPs). These strategies do recognise the important role of civil society in protecting and promoting these fundamental values and call for supporting civic initiatives in these fields. So far, however, these have fallen short of actually yielding results in strengthening the civic sector and its ability to protect democracy and human rights in the EU.
The €1.55bn Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) Programme, launched in 2021, is a promising investment in fundamental rights, civic space, democracy and rule of law within the EU itself. Yet civil society organisations (CSOs) and philanthropic donors realise that neither its pace nor its budget can bring substantial progress without supplementary actions. Paradoxically, the U.S. government has recently decided to return to funding free civil society, independent media and anti-corruption initiatives in Central Eastern EU member states, about twenty years after USAID had left the region.
The Commission has not been good enough in communicating how civil society matters. Its Communication on the European Green Deal (2019), for instance, mentioned ‘civil society’ or ‘NGOs’ just twice. The transformations that will be brought about by the Green Deal and the Digital Agenda for Europe will require civil society to address likely social discontent, which could fuel anti-democratic political forces and disinformation amplified by the Kremlin.
Excluding European civil societies from continental policy-making is also short-sighted. They cannot push back against anti-democratic trends on their own, especially in EU member states that are mired in a rule of law crisis. CSOs need support from, and deserve inclusion by, EU institutions. They can deploy political, legal and financial pressure on governments, be it through infringement actions, the rule of law conditionality regulation or the Article 7 process.
To further the spirit of solidarity among a European demos, the relationship between citizens, civil society and the EU must become more participatory and inclusive. The EU needs to think strategically about reconnecting with its citizens – both directly and through their self-organised intermediaries, civic groups, and especially those that never get to Brussels. Clearly, it cannot expect to do so merely through its institutions and the member states’ governments, several of which challenge and contest EU law and fundamental values. A few weeks ago, the citizens’ panels of the Conference on the Future of Europe recommended to strengthen rule of law and civil society in the EU. The Commission has responded that it would consider them but gave citizens no guarantees.
What next? A European Strategy on Civil Society
Advancing democracy in Europe should build on robust efforts to strengthen civil society itself, in all its roles – as watchdogs, policy advocates and voices drawing attention to policy failure, rights defenders, community builders and service providers. Particularly in EU member states where the rule of law is defect, their efforts should be boosted by the EU itself. The impact of its mechanisms to engage with, support and protect civil society have, however, been limited and its overall approach meek and fragmented. To make progress, we need to move beyond diagnosing the restrictions on civic space in the context of democratic erosion. Adopting a forecasting mindset means advocating for the expansion of civic space so that civil society becomes a permanent, empowered and engaged actor in future European governance.
To enable European civil societies to build strength as they attempt to roll back the rollback, the European Commission should launch a European Strategy on Civil Society with a vision to foster a vibrant, independent and pluralistic civil society in the EU. A comprehensive strategic approach on partnering with European civil societies would allow the EU to more effectively tackle challenges such as the climate crisis, economic recovery from Covid, rapid digitalisation, growing illiberalism and ambivalence about democracy. While in some member states independent civil society needs support to counter threats posed by illiberals, civil society everywhere in the EU needs recognition as an essential governance actor and as a strategic partner for EU institutions and governments. In a European Strategy on Civil Society, the Commission could express its political commitment to supporting and expanding civil society space and civil society participation in EU policy-making and implementation. The Strategy should lay out the path for increasing protection, improving participation and supporting civil society along three tracks.
1. Increase protection
EU Member states are obliged to respect the freedom of assembly, association and expression, and the independence of civil society actors. To counter unjustified government interference, a strategic acquis on civil society should be fortified by adopting legal safeguards at the EU level, such as the European Statute for Cross-border Associations and common minimum standards across the EU. Also, it will be crucial for the Commission to devote more attention to civil society space in all EU27, as part of the annual Rule of Law reports, and take prompt legal action for breaches of EU law that stifle civil society and soften up constitutional rule of law guarantees. Civil society should have formal ways to give input to the Commission as it works to uphold EU values, such as in the course of infringement actions as well as in the implementation of the Rule of Law conditionality regulation for the EU budget as well as NextGenerationEU. CSOs should be promptly and effectively shielded from government backlash in their work to assist in safeguarding the EU’s financial interests and core values.
2. Improve participation
Better interaction with EU institutions by improving the structured dialogue and consultations with civil society would be key. Currently, EU institutions use different methods to engage with civil society actors. The European Parliament follows an open, often informal approach by which CSOs can relatively easily engage with MEPs and their advisors. The Commission uses the formalised approach of public consultations, but these rarely provide sufficient room for CSOs to present their full perspective and analyses. Furthermore, they cannot request the Commission to open consultations on particular challenges they face, like an unbalanced distribution of domestic funds or government-led smear campaigns. Third, the Council – literally a black box – offers neither a process nor opportunities for consulting with the public in its legislative and non-legislative activities. The assumption that national constituency concerns will reflexively be represented by Ministers no longer holds, given defective democratic practices in some member states. CSOs are rarely, if ever, invited to address Working Parties and other Council configurations. Crucially, none of these EU institutions has a dedicated focal point where civil society can refer concerns (i.e., a system of early warning). Access to public information on the work of EU institutions is too labyrinthine to be useful to social movements and civic groups. As a legitimising strategy, the EU should invest more in inclusiveness and participation through civic dialogue.
3. Provide support
The EU has several programmes to fund democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law that should benefit the civic sector. These are not accessible to all civil society groups, especially smaller or informal organisations, do not cover all types of activities carried out by CSOs (e.g., strategic litigation) or may come with geographical or activity restrictions. The new CERV programme (2021-2027) is a welcome development; nevertheless, further steps are needed to achieve equal, fair and unrestricted access to all EU funding instruments for CSOs operating at different levels (international, national and local). It is equally important that CSOs participate in the design, implementation and monitoring stages of the various funds to render access to financial support more open and transparent.
It is striking how many civic organisations in the EU face stigmatisation, proposed or adopted legislation that intends to restrict their ability to work on certain themes or disproportionate reporting obligations that strain resources. In many traditionally progressive and liberal Western European countries, policies aimed at countering terrorism are increasingly applied across sectors, potentially hampering the proper functioning of NGOs. It appears that much like the single market for goods and services, the ‘single market’ for regressive policies in Europe is growing exponentially. Worst practices are embraced across borders and smoothly copied into domestic jurisdictions, whatever their provenance.
Seeding a European demos whose absence we have decried for too long – the sense of pan-European care for our continental rights and freedoms – requires EU institutions to step up. In its next work programme, the Commission could bring these components – support, participation and protection – together in a European Strategy on Civil Society. Calls are mounting that Ursula von der Leyen should include in this in the Commission’s 2023 work programme.
If the EU wants to remain a global champion for high democratic standards and human rights and rule of law protection, it must also take action “at home” within the Union itself to protect and fortify defenders of civic space in countries formerly considered safe havens for human rights and rule of law work. Given current pressures on democracy and human rights in the EU, focusing on boosting support for civil society, its inclusion in decision-making and protection over the next decade is key.
An earlier version of this article appeared, in German, in Internationale Politik under the title „Bedrohte Freiheit Europas“.