On Wednesday evening, 7 February, a debate was dedicated to the shrinking space of civil society at the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. During the debate, a number of parliamentarians and the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality highlighted the need for a so-called European Values Instrument, a fund to support non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Europe against national government policies to hamper their work. The idea of a dedicated EU NGO fund was first raised by Liberties back in 2016.
Wide support for NGOs
The late Wednesday evening plenary debate in Strasbourg showed that MEPs across the political spectrum are concerned about governments' serious attempts to discredit and delegitimise critical NGOs. This is particularly true of the governments in Poland, Hungary and Romania.
Vera Jourová, the EU commissioner for justice, said the EU is working on a feasibility study and planning to put forward a proposal for a new financial mechanism to fund NGOs from the EU's post-2020 budget. She talked about the need to create a proportionate grant application process and reporting criteria for smaller and large-scale NGO funding, although she played down the chance of establishing a separate budget line for the purpose.
Jourová hinted that this is the time for ideas to be channelled into the EU law-making process around the issue. She added that the European Commission (EC) is in close contact with civil society organisations on how to expand the field for all actors.
In response to questions from members of the European Parliament (MEPs) about the mounting pressures on NGOs and what the EC is doing to counter them, the commissioner hinted that she sees other ways to make governments respect the freedom of civil society besides the ongoing infringement procedures against Poland and Hungary.
NGOs offer innovative approaches to problems
A number of parliamentarians confirmed to Jourová their support for dedicated NGO funding. This would allow NGOs to do their work and bypass governments' attempts to restrict their activates and diminish their irreplaceable role in our democracies.
Monika Panayotova, the deputy minister for the Bulgarian EU Presidency and person responsible for its relations with the European Parliament, highlighted the importance of civil society in preserving democracy, the rule of law, inclusive policies, social inclusion and much more, both in the EU and in third countries. She praised the NGO sector's often innovative approaches to problems, offering real added value in these difficult times for European democracies.
Michal Boni, a Polish MEP of the European People’s Party, warned that there is no democracy without civil society – therefore the EU is obliged to make sure governments don’t restrict NGOs from resources for the development of our democracies. For the European Values Instrument, we need a decision that is made through close cooperation between the Council of Ministers, the EP and the Commission, Boni said.
We must put democracy first
Péter Niedermüller, a Hungarian MEP of the Socialists & Democrats, said EU governments have to take a firm stand in favour of civil society organisations and the EU should also set up a democracy fund so that NGOs can apply funding directly to both project and operational costs.
Sophia in 't Veld, a Dutch liberal (ALDE) MEP, asked the EC to make sure the litigation fund created last year will not be watered down to a general fund during the creation of the future EU budget instrument for NGOs.
“Democracy is about checks and balances, which means we have to fund our opposition if it’s necessary,” said in 't Veld - a provocative thought for many of her fellow parliamentarians.