The Civilization coalition was established to enable more civil society organisations to support one another in fighting for a common cause that promotes collective care, protection of disadvantaged people and preservation of nature. The coalition’s work in campaigning against the abusive and stigmatising LexNGO law, which violated fundamental freedoms of association and the protection of personal data, is a historic moment for European civil society. This award celebrates the coalitions’ efforts, which span over 3 years, in fighting the LexNGO, ultimately resulting in the repeal of the law. Their work was able to put an end to an unnecessarily damaging and stigmatising civil society law in Hungary, but the fight for civic space in the country is not over!
The interview with Veronika Móra, Civilisation Coalition, was carried out in summer 2021 as part of the report Activizenship #6.
How did Civilisation Coalition start and how did it evolve in the past 4 years?
In spring 2017, the news that the Government would target foreign-funded organisations sparked a series of discussions among 30+ major civil society organisations (CSO) from Hungary. After a couple of discussions, we started to get together and plan joint actions to respond to the upcoming draft legislation. Civilisation was officially established in March 2017 when we came out with our founding declaration. That spring, we organised a couple of spectacular actions like the civic heart demonstration on Heroes’ Square and a silent protest in the Parliament. At the demonstration, the civic heart as a symbol was born and it became so popular that we decided to keep it. That was the beginning of the story.
During the summer of 2017, we had our first strategic meeting where we laid down the basic rules for cooperation and started planning our strategy in the longer term. Since then, the Civilisation coalition has been working together continuously. Civilisation is not a legally registered organisation but an informal coalition. However, we formalised our relations by drafting mutually accepted rules of operation. By now, we have almost 40 members in the “inner circle” composed of active organisations which meet monthly. We have active working groups organising the actions. The communication working group meets most regularly and is composed of communication officers from different organisations. We also have roughly 300 organisations that gravitate in the “outer circle”; these are organisations with whom we have regular contact via our newsletter and joint actions.
What is the added value of coalition building to respond to shrinking civic space in the country?
Individual CSOs are most often not strong enough to defend themselves in the face of attacks, and also easily become afraid and insecure if they feel isolated. Cooperation and networking are the main way to counter this: civic actors together can stand up for one another, express solidarity and support those most in need. Also, together as a coalition they can show and communicate better and louder why and how civil society is important for us all and what organisations do for the public good. So, coalition building is absolutely essential in the situations of shrinking space.
Cooperation among Hungarian NGOs was limited before the Civilisation Coalition was created. How did the cooperation within the sector evolve? Has there been more collaboration beyond resisting to the shrinking civic space?
Civilisation was unique, as it is the first long-term cooperation among organisations from different backgrounds and working on different areassuch as human rights, environmental issues or community organising. The key to Civilisation’s longevity is the boundaries that we established: we limit our structured cooperation to horizontal issues that concern civil society as a whole. We do not interfere with what the member organisations do or the way they do it. We must acknowledge that members of Civilisation are very different not only in terms of areas of work but also in their capacity. We accept that everybody contributes according to their capacity while ensuring that we are all on equal footing.
Indeed, cooperation within Hungarian civil society has always been an issue. Some sectors organise themselves well; in particular environmental NGOs have a long-standing cooperation network. In other areas, there have been less sustainable efforts. In that sense, Civilisation is quite unique. Around 2014, at the start of the controversy between the EEA & Norway grants, there were attempts to form a similar structure to Civilisation. Those efforts were unsuccessful, but we learned from the experience and avoided some of the same pitfalls when we started Civilisation. Recently, CSOs but also trade unions and movements working in the field of education have been cooperating quite well. Also, organisations working on housing and homelessness started to come together and build a structure similar to Civilisation. They organised a big-scale campaign against Government’s attacks on the social housing system in the spring. The Government wanted to reduce social housing drastically by selling out the properties, but CSOs organised protests which mobilised almost all organisations active in the field. Since then, they are trying to structure and consolidate this cooperation. It is less formalised, but they are trying to meet regularly, introduce basic cooperation mechanisms, find common grounds on certain aspects.
What are the most significant civil society movements challenging the deterioration of rights and the rule of law in Hungary? And what is the biggest challenge for civil society actors in Hungary?
Civilisation is undoubtedly part of these movements. Trade unions are also becoming more active: just this week, a big demonstration initiated by the trade union of health workers took place also supported by other trade unions. Organisations working on public education issues have also been quite active over the past years. More recently, LGBTI organisations have also played a significant role in challenging the status quo.
The biggest challenge for CSOs is the fact that the Government treats critical organisations as enemies and tries to limit and tarnish their image and make their functioning difficult. This is rooted in the context of a larger democratic backsliding and the elimination of checks and balances in Hungary.
How did the polarisation of civil society led by the Government’s narrative changed civil society landscape? Is the rise of conservative civil society a challenge for democratic civil society?
The situation in Hungary is different from that of Poland: conservative civil society is not necessarily an issue in Hungary. There are a number of GONGOs (government-organised non-governmental organisations) that mirror real civil society organisations, such as the Civil Unity Forum and the Fundamental Rights Centre, a right-wing so-called fundamental rights organisation. All know the conservative NGOs to be GONGOs created to support government policies in the given areas and serve as a counterweight to democratic ones. For example, they regularly appear on pro-government media.
However, we do see a polarisation of civil society linked with the way the Government views the role of civil society. Civil society should limit itself to the very traditional, charitable and leisure activities: feeding the poor is acceptable but speaking up or advocating for them is not. The Government divides or polarises CSO by dividing them between “good” organisations that are very traditional and do not engage in any advocacy or criticism, and the “bad” organisations that do. That is a real issue for us because organisations considered as good from the Government’s perspective are often unwilling to engage with actions that could be construed as political or controversial. They keep their distance from organisations considered as bad by the Government. They often refrain from speaking up even when they experience problems locally as they are afraid to lose their funding or dialogue channels with the local authorities.
This polarisation is quite visible in terms of funding. Recently the Government opened more funding sources, in particular one big fund for organisations working in small villages under 5000 inhabitants and another for organisations working in larger towns. It was shown that organisations that have been founded or led by local Fidesz functionaries were awarded most of the funds.The Government uses funding to keep traditional organisations silent and starve the critical organisations.
In this sense, CSOs in the countryside are generally weaker and more dependent on local authorities, but regional differences exist. There are several major urban centres around, such as Pécs and Szeged – where there is visible civic activism, but there are other areas where it is feeble.
How did you manage to mobilise European attention and action to the situation in Hungary?
We managed to mobilise European attention and action with the help of European networks. This issue first received international attention in 2014, around the time of the EEA & Norway grant controversy. It was such a unique and unheard-of event to happen in the EU that it immediately received attention internationally and made headlines. As a consequence, civil society mobilised. At the time, all big international and inter-governmental organisations dealing with human rights and democracy paid attention because what happened was unprecedented. The European institutions came to us.
What effects did the Court of Justice if the European Union ruling produce in Hungary?
The Hungarian Government and Parliament were slow in implementing the CJEU ruling; they finally repealed the law in April this year. However, they replaced it with other provisions that give cause for concern. The new legislation would come into effect next year and give the State Audit Body power to audit organisations with an annual income of over ~66.000 euros.
It is important to stress that while the foreign funding legislation was enforced, it did not directly affect the organisations that it targeted. A number of Civilisation members publicly boycotted the legislation, and none of us suffered sanctions or consequences: we continued receiving money from abroad to pursue our activities. The chilling effect resulting from the law was felt primarily by organisations in the countryside and smaller organisations, which became more cautious about their actions and their funding sources. Additionally, some funders also became overly cautious about their activities in Hungary.
What were the effects of four years of implementation of the LexNGO on civil society? What changed with the retraction?
As the Government’s approach did not change, the withdrawal of the law did not have a direct impact on the day-to-day operations of civic organisations. Organisations that were afraid still are; those that were not afraid are still not. In this respect, the law achieved its primary goal, that is, to divide the sector and frame civic organisations as entities that should be controlled. Regardless of the retraction, it should not be forgotten that the Hungarian Government has continued its campaign to vilify and discredit CSOs during the past years. Other restrictive pieces of legislation and discriminatory practices are still in place. The lack of change in the Government’s approach is illustrated by the adoption of a short-lived decree obligating for CSO to publish the names of all donors without exception. This decree was retracted two weeks after it was published, and the retraction might be linked to the fact that church-based and other major charities would also have been subjected to this legislation. But this suggests that the Government continues to look for ways to restrict civil society.
What about at the European level? The CJEU ruling declaring the LexNGO contrary to EU law was the first EU ruling explicitly referring to freedom of association. Do you think it provides a good basis for other NGOs to act at the European level?
Indeed. For instance, a similar proposal for legislation on foreign funding also came up in Poland and Bulgaria, but authorities decided not to pursue the process. The court of justice’s ruling sent a strong message: “do not try this at home”.
The ruling also proves that the Government’s narrative about the transparency was just a pretext, not a real issue. The law was not about transparency, rather about controlling the narrative on civil society and their work. In all European societies, raising awareness about the work of civil society, their importance, and their role in a democratic society is paramount. I think this awareness was missing in Hungary. For this reason, the Civilisation coalition, beyond reacting to events and legislation, also put substantial effort to raise awareness and highlight the activities that our members carry out to create our narratives as civil society. The aim is to help shape a favourable public opinion.
It seems that this is like the Hydra: if you cut one head, two grow back instead. Do you see to break this cycle at the national level in the long term?
In this political environment, it does not seem possible to change the cycle. However, we are being proactive about the change, and we have several ideas on what should be done to improve the environment for civil society.
Ahead of the 2022 general elections, Civilisation made a list of demands to the parties and the candidates, outlining 13+1 points needed to improve the situation of civil society (see the case study above). It includes measures and steps that political authorities should take regarding the legal environment, funding, civil dialogue and public support or image. We are promoting this among the parties and the prime minister candidates, asking them to commit to implementing this set of measures if they come to power. We will continue this campaign in the coming months.
How can the EU support civil society avoid the reappearance of laws and other mechanisms targeting NGOs and their work?
There are two things that the EU can do. First, European institutions should clearly state in words and actions that Hungary’s situation is unacceptable and it goes against EU founding treaties. This also requires taking steps in the form of infringement procedures and decisions of the European Court of Justice or EU funding conditionalities. This would also show that no Member State should take similar actions.
Second, the Commission should adopt a European civil society strategy and treat civil society as a valuable sector in itself. It should identify steps and measures that the EU could take to support CSOs financially and through EU legislation. We realise the challenge as civil society is mostly a Member State competence, but that is why the Commission should develop a policy and look at the areas where it could intervene within its competencies. There are several recent and ongoing promising initiatives by the European Commission, such as planned EU legislation on SLAPPS and on whistleblower protection, showing the willingness to stretch competences in areas related to civil space.
Do you identify the weaknesses and slowness of actions at the European level as factors that allowed for the deteriorated situation that NGO face? What can European civil society and European institutions learn from the Hungarian case at the European level?
A common opinion is that the European Union thought that following the accession process during which countries were thoroughly vetted on their level and quality of democracy and the state of human rights would not backslide after their admission as members. The EU institutions took it for granted that democracy in these countries would remain solid and human rights respected. Therefore, there were no mechanisms planned at the EU level to counter democratic backsliding and the deterioration of checks and balances. However, in 2008, nobody thought that such measures would be necessary.
Of course, the EU could have reacted faster: once Hungary entered this path and Poland followed, it took the EU quite a while before “waking up”. If that period were shorter, we would probably be in a better situation. In 2021, the EU has at its disposal the Article 7 procedure, the rule of law reporting, the rule of law conditionalities… if we had these measures in 2015 or 2016, I think it would have made a difference.
The story of the frog put in hot water versus one in cold water and slowly heated up is an essential metaphor for EU institutions. First early warning signs should not be discarded; there is a need to act before the water is boiling.
Do you have some suggestions or good examples of how not having a reacting narrative but create your own positive narrative would like to share?
The first example started with the fact that in Hungary we can decide to give 1% of our taxes to civil society organisations. In the past years we in Civilisation were trying to create materials – videos. Facebook ads – for our members that they can use in their campaigns to collect these 1% assignations. We are not fundraising for Civilisation itself, but rather try to create a common image for CSOs and to promote their positive image. The added value was a coordinated and uniformed image and message, so that when people see the civil heart in some CSO’s communication, it clicks in their heads and they understand better what civil society and activism is about.
Later, when the recipients of these 1% tax assignations became public, we again created videos with a unified message in which the CSOs explained how they were planning to use the money, what they did the past years, why is it important and the money’s possible impact. We continued that half a year later and with this we helped the campaigns of our members to get more attention on their activities – helping tax payers finding the causes they are willing to pay for.
What is the situation of the EEA & Norway grant?
The Norwegian Foreign Minister’s recent statement made clear that Hungary will not receive funds in the present format because of the disagreement between the donor states and the Hungarian Government about which organisation should manage to funds allocated to support civil society. She also hinted that they remain committed to support civil society in Hungary in some way. We are waiting to see what the possibilities are but I guess it will take some time.
The interview was carried out on 27 July 2021.
 See e.g.: https://norvegcivilalap.hu/sites/default/files/anyagok/ncta_book_angol_epdf.pdf pages 27-29.
 https://telex.hu/belfold/2021/07/28/fideszes-vezetesu-civil-szervezeteket-tamogat-a-magyar-allam-egy-uj-palyazati-alapbol https://atlatszo.hu/2021/08/11/fideszes-politikusok-altal-iranyitott-szervezetek-nyertek-a-norveg-alap-helyen-felallitott-civil-programon/