Summary of report for the Civic Space Watch by Giada Negri, ECF on 17/03/2023.

Civil society is under pressure across the EU, and in some member states, the situation is alarming. Despite this, they continue to demonstrate resilience. A new report released today by the European Civic Forum (ECF), Fighting for Democratic Empowerment and Resilience’ highlights the deterioration of civic freedoms emerging across Europe. It also demonstrates that civil society remains the bedrock for democracy and rule of law.  

In 2022, civil society continued to step up to challenges, despite limited means and power. In the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, organisations and volunteers prioritised aid to people in need. They were often, as ever, the first to arrive and the last to leave when responding to social needs. Civil society organisations advocate for the common good and to ensure laws are not driven by corporate interest and for-profit pursues. 

But across the EU, NGOs, associations and movements are under pressure and facing challenges as a result of  the erosion of democratic processes and breaches of the rule of law.  

In several member states, restrictive laws continue to hamper the right to association and the activities of NGOs and associations. Following in the footsteps of Hungary, laws targeting NGOs receiving foreign funding have been discussed in Poland and Bulgaria.  

But restrictions have also been observed in countries where democracy remains strong, like in France, where the “Separatism law” requires any association applying for public financing to sign a “contract of commitment to Republican principles”, and Germany, where NGOs have been targeted for being too political.  

“Promoting a thriving European civic space requires a shared commitment of European institutions and member states. If they want to protect democracy, they must answer people’s needs for public policies that work for the common good. Therefore, they have to prioritise what contributes to internal democratic resilience: this means to support and protect civil society organisations and human rights defenders that with their actions keep alive democracy every day.” said Alexandrina Najmowicz, European Civic Forum, Secretary General. 

CSOs and individual activists working on democracy, rule of law and human rights as well as journalists have also faced smear campaigns, verbal and physical attacks and legal harassment through Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPPs). These concerns are mirrored in the CIVICUS Monitor’s latest findings which show an overall decline in civic space globally and in the EU. This year the civic space ratings of two member states, Greece and Cyprus, were downgraded.   

Excluded groups, such as Muslim people, migrants, and LGBTI+, as well as women, have been particularly targeted.  

In Greece, NGOs and humanitarian volunteers have been attacked for calling out illegal pushbacks that the Government denies are taking place. In Romania, LGBTQI+ associations received several death threats, including disturbing images on multiple channels that include Nazi symbols and detailed ways to kill LGBTQI+ people. 

Today democracy in Europe is facing pressure both on its inputs, as democratic backsliding unfolds across the EU, and its outputs, as many fear for their future and increasingly mistrust national institutions’ ability to deliver policies that will protect them. 

“The EU must not miss the opportunity to support and protect civil society in its upcoming Defence of Democracy package. In the longer run, the European Institutions should adopt a European strategy towards open civic space and resilient civil society” – continued Alexandrina Najmowicz. 

Participation in the policy-making process is also a concern,  with many CSOs describing it as “ad hoc”, “informal”, or “tokenistic”. In Croatia, civil dialogue and participation have been hampered since the short-lived experience of the government dominated by far-right elements in 2016. In Spain, civil society has had very few opportunities for dialogue with the government in an open and public way to express their demands during the reform process of the Citizen Security Law (Gag Law).  

“Civil dialogue, which consists of the structured participation of civil society in policy-making, is a crucial component of participatory democracy and key to developing effective policies and measures that address people’ aspirations and concerns. But at the European level and many Member States it still needs to be recognised and organised on an equal footing to social dialogue,” said Alexandrina Najmowicz, European Civic Forum, Secretary General. 

“The EU must not miss the opportunity to do this in its upcoming Defence of Democracy package. In the longer run, the European Institutions should adopt a European strategy towards open civic space and resilient civil society”, continues. 

Protests are a crucial venue for participation, especially when institutionalised channels for social and civil dialogue and democratic checks and balances are weakened or broken. In 2022 several protests took place across the EU including against Russia’s war and in solidarity with Ukraine, against the rising cost of living and endangered labour rights, and over the environmental and climate emergencies. In France, over the past weeks, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated and joined strikes against a controversial pension reform. 

However, in recent years, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy and other member states have passed legislation restricting the right to peaceful assembly and toughening sanctions related to assemblies.  

In several member states there have been concerning responses to protests which include the use of intimidation and harassment against protesters, detention of protesters and the use of excessive force. In Hungary, 14 teachers at Budapest high schools were fired by the Ministry of Interior, in a seemingly arbitrary manner with a clear goal of deterring others, in the context of protests on their worsening working conditions, after their right to strike was curtailed. In Germany, police searched the homes of eleven climate activists in relation to actions they staged during which oil pipelines were disrupted in the spring of 2022. 

There are also positive examples amongst member states, which need to become the rule. In Slovenia, Austria, Lavia and the Czech Republic, positive steps for civil dialogue and structured participation of civil society have taken place.  

Read the full report here