Freedom of association?

Freedom of association is the citizens’ right to associate with others who share similar priorities and concerns to take joint actions. It includes the right to create or take part in formal and informal groups, such as charities, NGOs, political movements and parties, religious groups, and community-based groups. Freedom of association is an essential complement to other civil, political and social rights.

In Europe, freedom of association is recognised and protected by national laws and supranational legislation by the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe. For example, article 12.1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as integrated into the Lisbon Treaty (2007) states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association at all levels, in particular in political, trade union and civic matters, which implies the right of everyone to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests.”

Civil society organisations serve their communities in multiple ways. They complement the action of the State by delivering services to vulnerable sections of the society such as disables and migrants; they conduct social research that brings expertise to governing bodies on highly socially sensitive policy areas such as social care and health care; they educate the society to human rights and democracy. Most importantly, they are often the only pressure groups advocating for the benefit of society at large rather than partisan or sectoral interests. These organisations are crucial for safeguarding the rule of law, and democracy.

To us, civil society organisations:

In both their action-oriented and advocacy oriented capacity, they contribute to keeping our societies inclusive and democratic. When their critical role is disregarded, denied or threatened, the whole democratic space is shrinking, both at EU and national levels.

While the law protects freedom of association, this can be hindered by policies directly or indirectly targeting civil society organisations’ ability to carry out their activities and advocate for change. The most heavily affected organisations are those working on human rights and calling for respect of the rule of law.

Obstacles to the work of NGOs include harassment, surveillance and anti-NGO laws. However, state and non-state groups often have at their disposals more subtle techniques to hinder their actions. Anti-corruption and money laundry legislation, strategies to tackle extremism and terrorism also hamper freedom of association.

Liberties.eu suggests summarising these threats into four categories: smear campaigns, administrative harassment and physical attacks; funding cuts; over-regulation; growing reluctance to consult NGOs. These restrictions are often oriented at reducing trust on NGOs among the rest of population and weakening their action in other to restrict the access of minority groups to the policy-making and bolster the influence and executive power of governing.

Despite these threats growing and evolving rapidly, comprehensive, comparative research on the issue is still limited. For this reason, it is crucial to collect alerts from civic actors across Europe in real time, in the effort to encourage systematic research on the limits to freedom of association in Europe.

Read Latest Alerts:

– By the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL) In order to finance its response to a public health emergency, a government cuts public funding to civil society organisations (CSOs) and imposes a new tax of 25% on all foreign donations received by organisations defined as “entities pursuing objectives in ...
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Paper published in May 2020 - accessible here (PDF) Introduction This paper consolidates the major elements of a discussion on European governments’ policy responses to supporting civil society and facilitating philanthropy and individual giving in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. It is vital that governments recognise the crucial role ...
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Publication by the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law, accessible here “The Handbook is a guide that should empower civil society groups across the European Union to make the best use possible of the resources of EU law to protect the civic space. This fills a gap. And, unfortunately, it responds to a ...
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The annual State of Civil Society Report analyses key events and trends impacting on civil society, and civil society responses to the major challenges of the day. The ninth edition of our report focuses on the main trends from 2019. This report is about, from and for civil society, drawing ...
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Article originally published by ECF on Civicus Monitor, 15 May 2020 - accessible here ASSOCIATION The emergency measures implemented in Latvia due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have had a negative impact on the organised civil society sector, as reported by the national platform Civic Alliance - Latvia (CAL). On 17th ...
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Some thoughts on the new Joint Ministerial Decision, regulating the registration of migration-related NGOs  by HIAS Greece - 8 May 2020 Last week, the Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe published Guidelines on protecting NGO work in support of refugees and ...
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Article originally published in German on Die Aktive Bürgerschaft, 29 May 2020 - accessible here Various associations, federations and foundations have called on the Federal Government to provide financial support for civil society in the Corona crisis. For example, the German Fundraising Association (Deutscher Fundraising Verband e.V.) emphasized in a ...
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Article originally published on Phineo in German - accessible here Call upon the Federal Government: We demand state support for all, without exception! The Corona Crisis intervenes in the lives of every single person and every family in our country. In the long term, it will leave deep scars in ...
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Article originally published on Justice and Environment website, 19 May 2020 - accessible here In the shadow of the coronavirus, the new Slovenian government is taking rights from environmental and nature conservation NGOs. Anti-coronavirus provisions in Slovenia, which set out to disable environmental and nature protection NGOs in the procedures ...
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Article originally published in German on WZB on 30 April 2020 - accessible here Authors: Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter Disasters and crises are not only a challenge for the state. Such emergency situations are also characterised by the spontaneous willingness to help and the solidarity of the citizens. The ...
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