​Freedoms Fund:​ The EU Commission's Half-Hearted Plans to Support Civil Society Groups

The Commission paid considerable lip service to better supporting rights and democracy groups in the next EU budget. But its proposed funding programme falls short on every count.

If approved in its current form, the Commission's proposed Justice, Rights and Values Fund will disappoint anyone hoping for a new cash injection to support NGOs fighting at national level for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

The EU Commission is promising a total of €947 million over the 2020-2027 period: €642 million for a 'Rights and Values' programme and €305 million for a 'Justice' programme. This represents a drop of over €50 million compared the three existing funding programmes that the new proposal will replace. While some of these funds will reach rights groups, they are also destined for a variety of other organisations, such as national justice programmes, public bodies, think tanks, universities and even private companies. As such, the budget falls far short of the €2 billion that Liberties and the European Parliament previously called to be dedicated to NGOs working to protect rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Under the current proposal – still to be negotiated with the European Parliament and the member states in the Council – money will only be available for helping to implement EU law and policy, rather than to defend rights and democracy more broadly. This is particularly worrying considering the press statement of the Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Commissioner, Věra Jourová:

"At a time where European societies are confronted with extremism, radicalism and divisions, it is more important than ever to promote, strengthen and defend justice, rights and EU values. NGOs and civil society play a crucial role in standing up for these European values."

It appears that the proposal will also fail to help NGOs working at national level, a key ask of a recent European Parliament resolution and Liberties' own proposal for a European Values Instrument. A Commission official confirmed that the proposed fund would, just as the funding programmes that it is replacing, only provide funds to support the day-to-day running of pan-European network or umbrella NGOs. While this is important, it is hard to see how the fund will make a real impact if it does not also provide similar grants for organisations working at national level that are short of resources. The Commission's practice has been to provide only short term funding for specific projects, which makes it hard for rights groups to plan ahead or attract and retain talented staff, and it means that they have to dedicate significant time to fundraising instead of doing their jobs.

Even more worrying to Michal Boni, the Polish MEP who led work on the recent European Parliament resolution endorsing the idea of a European Values Instrument, is that “the resources will be spent on a much wider scope of activities, which will also include such issues as promotion of European historical and cultural heritage, preventing and combating violence against children and women and many other topics. There will be very little resources left for civil society organisations struggling to protect and promote democracy and rule of law.”

Boni concludes by warning that it “will be certainly much less than the EU has been spending on promoting its values beyond its borders, which is hard to justify given the many challenges to democracy within the EU.”

It was perhaps telling that Commission staff refused to answer journalists' questions asking if these funds aim to help NGOs in countries like Poland and Hungary, where governments are obstructing the work of organisations promoting rights and freedoms.

Liberties’ head of advocacy, Dr. Israel Butler, said: "The Commission has appeared before the European Parliament and pledged more support to NGOs fighting for rights, democracy and the rule of law. It has surrounded the launch of this proposal with similar rhetoric. But the proposal presented by the Commission does nothing new. The Commission has ignored the Parliament and is effectively just continuing with the same inadequate funding programmes while dressing them up in noble words. The EU needs strong grassroots organisations upholding its fundamental values if it is to prevent the continued rise of authoritarianism. It is failing to deliver, and that is costing Europeans their rights and their democracies."