Civic space is the political, legislative, social and economic environment which enables citizens to come together, share their interests and concerns and act individually and collectively to influence and shape their societies. Civic space enables people to pursue multiple, at times competing, points of view.
The European Civic Forum bases its analysis of civic space in Europe on five elements that we believe are crucial for an open and vibrant civic space:
1. A conducive political, cultural and socio-economic landscape: the historical legacy on political culture, together with socio-economic structures and contingent events profoundly shape the public’s understanding of the role of civil society and the values it embodies, the activities it pursues, thus influencing public trust and support.
2. The respect of civic freedoms: a supportive legal and regulatory framework for civic freedoms, in particular freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and its effective implementation ensure the full-stretching, correct functioning and protection of civil society space. Governing bodies have the duty to protect the civic space, refrain from, investigate and discipline actions, laws and statements that threat civic freedoms.
3. A supportive framework for CSOs’ financial viability and sustainability: supportive legislation on funding, including foreign and international funding, and availability of sufficient and predictable resources are crucial to civil society’s capacities, independence and long-term strategic planning.
4. The dialogue between civil society and governing bodies: governing bodies must pursue policies and narratives that empower citizens and their organisations to be meaningfully engaged in the public debate and policy-making.
5. Civil society’s responses to challenges to democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights.
A vibrant and independent civil society and an open civic space are vital for a healthy democracy, strong social justice, and to safeguard of the rule of law.
An open, plural and dynamic civic space is a central feature of democratic societies because it allows citizens to engage politically beyond elections. It also encourages governments to be transparent and accountable. As such, the quality of civic space is not only an indicator of the state of the rule of law and democracy but also an integral component of the rule of law and democracy framework.
Not only are civic organisations and movements often among the actors that are first targeted when rule of law and democracy deteriorate, but they are among the checks and balances available to our societies to uphold the rule of law and democracy. Both in its advocacy-oriented and its action or service-oriented function, civil society contributes to making effective the access to civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights for many.
While the intensity of the deterioration of the rule of law varies from country to country, almost no EU country has fully safeguarded civic space in the two past decades. Key practices and trends include: power shifts to the executive branch at the expense of parliamentary democracy or participatory mechanisms; increasing limitation of the oversight of the judiciary; a disregard of civic dialogue with intermediary bodies that are challenging policy making; the deployment of a range of legislative, judicial and coercive measures to shrink the space for democratic civil society and other social actors calling the state and market institutions to account; a multiplication of challenges to freedom of speech, freedom of information and data protection guarantee.
It is time for a proactive European strategy towards open civic space! While the implementation of the enabling environment for civil society is a national competence, the drivers and responsibilities of the current rule of law and democratic deterioration are both national and European. The European Union’s role is crucial in rebuilding trust and confidence in democracy and the rule of law as tools for addressing the wide range of people’s needs, increasing cohesion in our societies, and protecting civic space.
The European Union institutions should commit to five key actions to secure the important role of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and social movements in protecting and promoting human rights, rule of law and social cohesion within the European Union: 1. Recognise and speak up for civil society; 2. Secure an enabling environment for civil society; 3. Monitor, document and analyse challenges faced by civil society; 4. Protect civil society from attacks; 5. Take legal actions to uphold the role of CSOs.
Transnational sharing of information, solidarity and cooperation among civic actors is also crucial to fight back against shrinking civic space. Isolation is the first tool for governments to undermine and delegitimise the action of civic actors. Bringing people from across Europe together can strengthen the voice of civil society locally and force states to be held accountable nationally