NGOs are vital to the proper functioning of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights and play a role comparable to that of a free and plural media and an independent judiciary. NGOs fulfil a number of important functions including: informing the population about matters of public interest, providing the public with channels through which they can speak to their political representatives between elections and holding the authorities to account when they break the law.
The freedom of NGOs to perform their tasks is protected by European and international legal obligations binding on the EU and its member states. These include the obligation on authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of association and assembly and freedom of expression and information, contained in instruments such as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mounting restrictions on NGOs in the EU
NGOs inside the EU are facing a growing number of restrictions that limit their ability to perform their tasks. Put otherwise, the freedom or space available to NGOs to perform their role in protecting and promoting fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law is ‘shrinking’ or ‘closing’. These restrictions include:
Smear campaigns, administrative harassment and physical attacks
NGOs have come under sustained rhetorical attack from politicians and media close to such figures in several EU countries including Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Romania. These smear campaigns are designed to undermine the public’s trust in NGOs, making the public less likely to participate in their activities or make donations. Typically, smear campaigns allege that NGOs critical of the ruling party are acting against the interests of the country or are involved in fraudulent or criminal activity. Often such campaigns try to weaken public support for NGOs as a prelude to restrictions on their activities. National authorities in some countries, such as Hungary and Bulgaria, also harass NGOs by misusing administrative procedures, such as audits, designed to tie down their resources. In some countries, such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Spain, NGOs report physical attacks against persons or property or hate speech.
There is evidence to suggest that public funds for NGOs promoting fundamental rights and equality have fallen, partly due to more general public spending cuts. However, in some countries, such as Croatia, Hungary and Poland, funding cuts have been politically motivated with funding shifting away from NGOs critical of the ruling party and towards government-friendly and church organisations. Poland is planning to bring the distribution of public and EU funding for NGOs under direct political control, following the example of Hungary. Measures to restrict public or overseas funding for NGOs are under discussion in Bulgaria and Romania and are already in place in Ireland and Hungary.
The EU offers only modest support for NGOs to promote and protect the EU’s fundamental values. First, EU funding in this area tends to be short-term project funding rather than long-term funding to cover core operational costs. Where core funding is available, it tends to be granted only to European or international NGOs, not national NGOs. This makes it difficult for NGOs to retain or attract well-qualified staff or to make long-term plans. Second, most projects concentrate on helping the Commission ensure that national authorities implement EU law properly. For example, training or research aimed at networks of judges and lawyers, or the collection and spread of good practices aimed at civil servants and local authorities. Some projects are aimed at providing services for certain vulnerable groups such as victims of domestic violence and children. Although these are important activities, the way that NGOs protect and promote the EU’s fundamental values is through public education, watchdog activities and litigation. However, there are few examples of support for this kind of work, outside the field of non-discrimination and hate speech. Given that governments are increasingly able to attack the EU’s fundamental values with public support or acquiescence, the lack of support for NGOs to engage in awareness-raising and public education to generate support for democracy, rights and the rule of law constitutes a serious gap in EU funding.
In many countries, NGOs report that governments have imposed or are considering introducing new bureaucratic burdens. For example, requirements on NGOs to report on their activities, funding and expenditure in more detail and more frequently, are reported in Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. Often these new rules are the result of policies apparently aimed at combating money laundering and financing for terrorist organisations. For the most part, these regulations are disproportionately burdensome for NGOs given that many are small, under-resourced and pose little risk of involvement in such activities. In some cases, such as Hungary’s recently adopted anti-NGO law, the fight against terrorist financing has been used as a pretext to stifle and stigmatise NGOs.
Growing reluctance to consult NGOs
In several EU countries, authorities have stopped or reduced how much they involve NGOs in law and policy-making on certain issues, for example in Hungary, Poland and Spain. The UK and Ireland have also made it more difficult for NGOs to carry out advocacy and persuade decision-makers to implement their fundamental rights obligations, especially during election campaigns.
A casualty of populist politics
In many cases, these restrictions are intentionally aimed at stifling independent NGOs because they defend minority groups, hold governments to account and allow all sections of society to participate in decision-making. Attempts to restrict the work of NGOs should be seen as part of measures taken by many governments to strengthen the authority of the executive (by limiting access to independent and effective courts), increase government influence over public opinion (by interfering with media freedom) and build public support by vilifying certain groups such as asylum seekers and ethnic minorities.
The types of NGOs most seriously affected by the restrictions described tend to be those that promote the general public interest by ensuring that governments implement their legal obligations concerning fundamental rights, the rule of law, democratic decision-making, environmental protection and anti-corruption.
How the EU could help: recommendations
The EU could support NGOs inside the EU working to promote and protect fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law by replicating some of the policies and practices it has already in place to support NGOs promoting the Union’s fundamental values outside the EU. Liberties calls on the EU institutions to take the following steps:
- create a fund for NGOs working inside the EU to promote and protect the EU’s fundamental values. This fund should offer grants that can cover core operational costs as well as litigation and watchdog activities. The fund should be administered independently of national authorities and independently of the EU itself, similarly to the European Endowment for Democracy.
- engage in capacity building measures for NGOs with a focus on improving the ability of NGOs to build broader support among the general public for fundamental rights, democracy and rule of law. Supporting NGOs to build a broader constituency will help them increase sustainable financial support among the general public and remove the incentive for populist parties and politicians to attack NGOs as a means of gaining political support.
- establish a point of contact in the European Commission or an EU observatory to whom NGOs can report restrictions on their work or harassment. This person or entity should report directly to the First Vice-President of the Commission.
- designate a high-ranking political figure in the European Commission responsible for making statements of support and diplomatic interventions in reaction to restrictions on or harassment of NGOs.
- develop a regulatory framework designed to protect the freedoms required by NGOs to perform their tasks.