A matter of precaution – watching the shrinking civic space in Western Europe

(Maecenata Institute) The global phenomenon of “closing” or “shrinking” space for civil society has been identified and increasingly analyzed since at least the beginning of the 2000s. In Europe, the focus has been on what has been happening in countries of Central and Eastern Europe or of the Balkans; by contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to developments in the continent’s older, established democracies. However, according to the NGO Civicus, civic space is now “narrowed” in 12 countries across the EU (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom) and “obstructed” in one (Hungary).

Even if in Western Europe there is no close threat of a takeover of authoritarian or undemocratic political actors winning power, it is nevertheless important to gauge the risk level in different countries and to watch out for any eventual links between restrictions on civil society and growing extremism or securitization of the public discourse on fundamental rights. This is necessary in order to stop violations of civic freedoms where they have started, and to anticipate and prevent them where possible. Furthermore, if external support to civil society has been a vital response to shrinking space globally, there is a question mark over who would play this helping role should such a situation start developing in Western European countries where many external supporters of civil society are themselves based.

Inasmuch as attention has been paid to the closing space for civil society in Western Europe, this has been more on a case-by-case basis, looking at specific measures or specific target groups in different countries, with limited understanding of how these might represent a general shrinking of civic space, connected to various areas of domestic everyday life as well as to the situation abroad.

By and large, the issue has not drawn wide attention outside of affected people and groups, experts, and the parts of the philanthropic sector that are touched directly or through their grantees. Generally, a comprehensive pan-European understanding of the phenomena is lacking and the matter certainly has not caught the eye of the general public.

Last November, a joint civil society statement asked the EU to uphold the role civil society plays in respecting Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which sets out the EU’s fundamental values, to secure space for civil society to operate, to document and monitor challenges civil society faces (including the extension of the scope of the Rule of Law Initiative of the Commission announced for this year), to protect civil society from attacks, and to defend the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) at the national level when endangered.

On March 2019, the European Economic and Social Committee—the EU’s consultative institution in which the third sector is represented—adopted an opinion on “Resilient democracy through strong and diverse civil society.” Its recommendations include the preservation of EU funding for civil society and specific support to CSOs that see their national public funding cut for political reasons, the reduction of administrative burdens for civil society to access EU funding, and the introduction of tax incentives to support civil society, as well as a mechanism to monitor the state of democracy in the member states.

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