Commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the LIBE Committee, this study covers the challenges facing the civil society space. Watchdog NGOs and other human rights defenders have been under pressure during the humanitarian and rule of law ‘crises’. Several EU Member States have passed laws that fall short of international, regional and EU freedom of association standards. Some governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic to further restrict the civic space.

The study explores how the EU could protect civil society from unjust state interference by strengthening freedom of association, assembly and expression, as well as the right to defend human rights. The study elaborates on four policy options: introducing a European association statute; establishing internal guidelines to respect and protect human rights defenders; developing a civil society stability index; and creating a network of focal contact points for civil society at EU institutions. It recommends strengthening the independence of critical civil society actors and increasing funding for activities such as strategic litigation to uphold EU laws and values.