(European Civic Forum for Balkan Civic PracticesIn the recent years, multiple attacks on civic space and citizens’ resistance to concentration of power showed that, although the methods might differ from one country to another, there were always common bounds to these wrongdoings. If we have a closer look at the inter-connections between governments, non-state actors, private entities from which these attacks and threats come, as presented in Civic Space Watch, we see many similarities. This suggests a coordinated strategy, or at least it shows that we can no longer speak of isolated cases. Looking at this phenomenon from a broader perspective also involves that the solutions and spaces for resisting it might come from a broader level too. With regards to this, the latest coordinated actions of resistance (on environmental issues, on freedom of expression…) reveal that civil society and citizens’ groups take stock of the advantage of breaking out the national silos.

Events that could have been observed last years across Europe have shown many similarities in the policies and other steps undertaken in various European countries that are detrimental for the civil society organisations (CSOs). Apparently it occurs that various ruling parties, irrespectively what side of political scene they formally represent (i.e. from conservative and authoritarian Law and Justice in Poland, through conservative-liberal Fides in Hungary to social-democratic PSD in Romania) exchange ideas, while adapting them to national circumstances. Additionally, they are also ready to support each other in case of criticism from international or EU institutions. CSOs from particular countries, which share respect to the liberal values, should do nothing else than copy such strategy. Actually, as recent events show (and as discussed in a workshop held during CIVICUS International Civil Society Week in Belgrade, April, 9th, 2019) it is happening already now, though it needs further practice and experience.

This article aims to discuss chosen examples of such exchange of good practices and mutual learning. While doing that, it will detail some more general illustrations of common, cross-border activities that can be undertaken by CSOs to stop civic space shrinking in particular countries and help CSOs to become more sustainable in the future. While proposing these solutions we will take as a guideline an observation formulated during the above mentioned workshop, implying that CSOs need to be strategic – learn their most important strengths and adapt the scope of their answers to the needs/character of obstacles they are facing.

Although the most recent “People Power Under Attack” CIVICUS report for 2018 noted that EU is the region with most open spaces for civic freedoms in the world, it also pointed out a worrying trend, with now 13 Member States of the European Union having either obstructed or narrowed civic spaces. The report notably identified restrictions on political activity of CSOs as one of the key factor for such a decline in European Union civil society landscape. From UK’s lobbying Act to Polish National Freedom Institute and the recent ruling of German Supreme Federal Tax Court which stripped away ATTAC’s charitable status, restrictions against the ability to operate and protect fundamental rights and the general interest for civil society organisations has rapidly spread.

Several recent cases have indeed shown that these measures were not isolated. This was also massively illustrated in Civic Space Watch, a collaborative, knowledge-sharing tool aimed at connecting activists and citizens’ groups from different parts of Europe. As this tool contains a set of resources, documenting on CSOs campaigns with both successful (e.g. the pan-European campaign for more Europe across Eastern countries) and unsuccessful endings, it shows many similarities in the organization of the campaigns and movements, although the national contexts vary a lot. The observation is that fundamental rights and the space for civil society to speak up and operate remain solid, but face a regular decline in Europe.

Organising Solidarity beyond Borders

Looking for collective answers might thus be more important than ever. Those already happening can give us some first elements for reflection and analysis of such future transnational convergence.

Indeed, bringing local issues out of their local context and putting them into a wider, cross-border perspective gives us a better overview of the emerging trends. This observation of the civic space at transnational level can prove very helpful. For example, after Hungary adopted a controversial law on NGOs and saw the creation of a transversal movement of civic organisations, Civilizacio, many other countries anticipated possible similar moves and civil society reorganised itself, so that it could respond to the same scenario. Juraj Rizman, former Greenpeace Slovakia director and now adviser on civil society to Slovakian newly elected president, highlighted this analysis of the regional trends as “a key to push back any comparable move in Slovakia”, which faced growing attacks against NGOs and smear campaigns via the media by the ruling party, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico.

If Civilizacio revealed the extraordinary resistance of Hungarian civil society against freedom-destroying legislations, it also served as a wake-up call for other movements across Europe. As explained by Vera Mora in Activizenship #3, “attempts to vilify and restrict civil society are part of the democratic backsliding trend” in Hungary. However, civil society there overcame the problems and differences they were facing to eventually call all together for transnational support. The latter, although it did not curb the government’s policies, at least showed that those under pressure were not alone in their struggles.

After 2015 parliamentary elections, Poland went through the path already laid out by Hungary a few years before. Also in this country, ruling politicians started playing on the large level of mistrust within the society and started gaining their political capital on deepening existing divisions as well as creating new ones. While doing so, they used the drawbacks of the local CSO sector, related to the model of its development after 1989: being poorly rooted in the society and depending on public funding. But challenges for the Polish civic sector pushed some of the CSOs to react and look for new solutions. One of these novelties is the consolidation visible within the sector, where different thematic coalitions have been established in response to the government’s behaviour. For instance, a diverse group of CSOs created the Citizens Observatory of Democracy in 2016, is an internet portal launched by a group of CSO working in different fields (human rights, legal counselling, watchdogs, think-tanks, etc.) which provides expert information on the laws adopted by current government in the fields of human rights, judiciary, public administration and civil society. A group of fund operating CSOs worked as an informal coalition with other CSOs in order to react (i.e. by drafting open letters and petitions) answering the most important legislative proposals of the ruling party and its government.

Furthermore, many national platforms emerged in different countries, always bringing together very diverse sectoral organisations. These coalitions generally strive for:

    • responding to immediate attacks or threats by their national governments, that can take various forms (smear media campaigns, restrictive legislation);
    • opening spaces for building trust towards the CSO sector.

National coalitions are regularly exchanging and offering mutual support. Either via informal contacts (emails, phones) or in more formal occasions (conferences, public hearings, donors’ events, etc.), these movements have tried to learn how they act, what happens to civil society on the side of the borderPolish activists and civil society organisations especially took the lessons from the Hungarian example and decided to launch in very participatory manner (also when it comes to financing this activity) a campaign named Todziala.

As a matter of fact, several other coalitions of NGOs decided to “import” the campaigning model for CSO public support. Thus, in the end of 2018, Slovenian organisations launched a campaign named “Mar Nam Je” (tr. We Care) to demonstrate the daily activities carried out by CSOs and their impact on Slovenians. Also, Czech Republic made a national public campaign “Posilujeme Cesko”, aimed at reinforcing the role of CSOs in a changing political and media landscape.

Other similar initiatives also emerged in Spain (“Defender a quien Defiende”), Italy (“Numeri Pari”) and France (“On ne se taira pas”), where civil society organisations and activists have broken down the virtual thematic clusters that were keeping them at distance from each other. In a political and societal environment where CSOs need to rebuild trust towards the general public and also continue playing their role as a democratic counter power, joining forces appears to be a way out.

Such cooperation between large parts of civil society, regardless of their thematic fields and structural differences, created an echo to other civil society organisations across Europe. In very little time, coalition-building became one of the priorities for those networks, both transnationally and at the European level. In 2015, several networks of NGOs addressing various issues (environment, social services, education, citizen participation and dialogue, international cooperation) set up Civil Society Europe, aimed at creating a space for horizontal exchange between them and at advocating for a healthier enabling environment for CSOs in Europe.

Supranational Bodies as Last Resorts

One more aspect that is worth mentioning when dealing with the transnational organisation of resistance against democratic backsliding is the possibility to reach out to international organisations and bodies. Many actors, including civil society activists and organisations, are critical of the work undertaken by these institutions and their real impact on safeguarding democracy. However, at key times they serve as an additional mechanism to prevent governments from taking aggressive measures against CSOs. The image of the country is an important asset in its diplomatic relations. Thus country diplomats are doing a lot inside these organisations to correct it, even if for the purposes of national public discourse ruling party politicians say something different.

When justice is no longer independent at the national level and when Constitutional courts are ineffective, civic activists perceive institutions such as the European Court of Justice or the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission as the last chances against authoritarian governments. Recently, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has also started investigating issues linked to fundamental rights and democracy in Member States, providing helpful recommendations to civic actors and those defending fundamental values. Additionally, the numerous statements and reports issued by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe on anti-NGO laws in Hungary Poland and Romania have contributed to intensifying campaigns asking to revoke those laws. More recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a report which pointed out at many failures in the way police forces were managing the Yellow Vests social movement in France. Notwithstanding the fact that they are not binding, receiving a support from abroad in the form of a report or declaration often reinforces civil society in the eyes of the public opinion and helps them maintain the pressure on their elected representatives who are dismantling checks and balances. In this sense, many activists and organisations are positively welcoming the Rule of Law conditionality mechanism, which should enable the European Commission to financially sanction a Member State failing to comply with the Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law.

Another upcoming proposal that might have a positive impact on coalition building is the Citizenship, Equality, Rights and Values programme, which was partially inspired by a group of CSOs being national operators of the EEA and Norway Grants NGO Fund. For drafting first proposal of that programme, these CSOs used their experiences from implementing mechanisms adopted under the EEA and Norway Grants. So the network of mostly foundations involved in implementing in several European countries the Active Citizens Fund that is financed from EEA countries and Norway is also another good example of transborder exchange of experiences and collective advocacy efforts. As a result, we can observe that a supranational source of funding for civil society enabled CSOs involved in spending these funds to take experiences from their work as well as from their cooperation with numerous grantees in respective countries and use it while lobbying on the European level for better funding conditions for all CSOs in the European Union.

Another example of such collective work is the Network of European Foundations, a coalition of pan-European donors supporting each year more than 60 foundations from over 20 countries and various strategic partners. By their collaboration they try to support more strategic cooperation between foundations. Thanks to joining their forces they also can have stronger voice in advocacy activities towards the governments of chosen countries, especially when it comes to freedom of association.

Where to Go and What to Do

To conclude, we see through the examples cited above that, although the situation is far from ideal in Europe, civil society organisations start to adapt their strategies and work hand in hand, both across thematic sectors and across borders. In order to strengthen this cooperation, we believe that the following points can constitute key issues, where civic actors shall focus their attention:

    1. What may seem as local struggles can generally be found elsewhere in Europe. The chilling effects against civil society are not limited to one geographical zone. This is why activists and CSOs should look at the experiences of those who already faced similar challenges and share their best practices;
    2. Coordinating efforts at national and supranational levels to build synergies across the thematic sectors can help put a safety net around the most vulnerable CSOs and groups. If not existing in your countries, you can always find some general guidelines on the coalition-building processes that took place in other countries. Civic Space Watch can prove very efficient with regards to this;
    3. Supranational bodies are there to make decisions when local or national organs are threatened or no longer independent. They act as a last resort to overcome the negative trends and build upon public statements that call for changes in the policy-making. Even if on the local level there might be an impression that their activities do not matter, since national governments are doing whatever they want without bothering much what international organisations are saying, this assumption is not totally truth.
    4. Be strategic in the approaches and mobilisations of the civil society actors: we need to avoid wasting time and energy when this is not needed. This can concretely mean analyzing what kind of mobilisations were necessary to have an impact (public mobilisation, open letter, direct answers via the media) and working strategically among key players from the civil society sector. These pieces of advice tend to be truth in a supranational context as well, where organisations or groups of citizens might sometimes produce overlapping tasks. It is therefore necessary to consult with potential partners and allies across borders in order to identify what strategy would fit best your own agenda and what type of actions might benefit most without requiring too much time and human resources.

While governments obviously work on existing legislative models coming from other countries, it is also time for civil society activists and organisations to look at the challenges from a broader perspective and accept to overcome the inner differences. Regardless of the diversity of our struggles, building on experiences and knowledge from each other is a sine qua non condition to successfully go through these turmoiled times.

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