Democracy & Justice

Civil Society Helps All of Us, But It Needs Our Protection Too

On Europe Day, Liberties' 'Bringing Human Rights to Life' showcases how civil society gives European citizens the tools to build the lives they want and gives ideas to the EU on how to preserve and expand it

by Orsolya Reich

Civil society organisations and activists give a vital contribution to the promotion and protection of our human rights and the shared values on which the European Union project, which today we celebrate, rests upon. Civil society should be acknowledged and cherished as a key enabler of peace and unity in Europe. But smear campaigns, inflated administrative burdens, ideologically biased funding and exclusion from law making processes stand in their way. The European Commission should show better support.

The European Commission has sought consultation with civil society organisations to inform a forthcoming report on the civic space and the role of civil society organisations in protecting and promoting fundamental rights in the EU. Liberties welcomes the initiative as a step in the right direction. To inform the Commission’s work, we prepared a policy paper – Bringing Human Rights and Article 2 Values to Life - that provides examples of what civil society organisations do for our rights and our democracies, and draws attention to the challenges and hardships they face. But the Commission’s report will not be enough to provide civil society the support they need to continue engaging in their crucial work, and to fight back attempts by governments and people in power to undermine their role and efforts. So our paper also suggests measures the European Commission should introduce to preserve and expand civic space.

What are civil society organisations for?

No matter who we vote for, most think our representatives should listen to our concerns and do what’s best for all of us. Whether that’s funding the schools and hospitals our communities rely on, making corporations pay people enough to support their families or making social media safe for our children.

In order to get heard, people need to join their voices. Civil society organisations build bridges between the public and politicians. They allow concerned citizens to get organised, work together and let politicians know what keeps them up at night. That is what progressive leaders mean, when they say that civil society organisations are “essential pillars of democracy”.

For concrete examples on how civil society makes democracy work for all of us, read our paper here.

Challenges civil society organisations are facing

Despite – and sometimes because of - their important role in allowing citizens take control of their democracies some governments actively try to make it harder for them doing their job. Earlier this year, we published our 2022 Rule of Law Report – a comprehensive piece of research to which 32 civil society organisations from across the EU contributed to provide their views on threats and challenges to our democracies. Not a single organisation reported that their government as had made any progress on creating an enabling environment for civil society.

In the Bringing Human Rights to Life paper we showcase the main obstacles civil society organisations face in doing their job across the European Union:

  • Smear campaigns: some governments spread lies to destroy public trust in civil society organisations.
  • Hostile regulatory framework: some governments ask a lot of unnecessary paperwork from organisations they do not like, or require them to meet conditions they know that the organisations will not be able to meet and then do not let them function.
  • Criminalisation, harassment and intimidation of activists: some governments threaten activists with prison for giving food or shelter or legal advice for people in need.
  • Limited and politically-biased funding: some governments give a lot of money to organisations that support them and almost none to those who do not share their worldview.
  • Restricted access to information: some governments make it difficult for civil society organisations to ask for information about decisions made by and meetings involving government.
  • Exclusion from public consultation: some governments do not involve civil society organisations when making laws, thereby not allowing them to make sure politicians take the interest of everyday people into account when making taking decisions.

For concrete examples on such hardships, read our paper here.

5 priorities for an EU Strategy on Civil Society

In recent years, the EU has realised that civil society inside the EU needs to be better protected and supported and started taking some positive steps in that direction. These have included a better monitoring of problematic national laws and practices, protecting civil society organisations from bogus law-suits and increasing funding to support the work of organisations.

However, the EU must do more to support and protect civil society organisations against threats and attacks. Without such support and protection the efforts of civil society cannot be sustained in the long-term. Liberties urges the EU to develop an EU Strategy for Civil Society, which should revolve around the following 5 key priorities:

  • Promoting a new, positive narrative: the EU Strategy should support civil society organisations to communicate more effectively so they can build greater understanding and public support for the work they do.
  • Promoting a supportive regulatory framework: the EU Strategy should prompt governments in Europe to make sure that regulations and practices make the work of civil society organisations easier, rather than more difficult.
  • Prompting effective protection against threats and attacks: the EU strategy should propose concrete steps to ensure that it monitors attacks against civil society organisations and activists, and responds to them.
  • Securing inclusive access to and participation in law and policy making: the EU strategy should prompt member states to strengthen the involvement of civil society organisations in national law and policy making, and propose a framework for civil dialogue at EU level.
  • Ensuring access to sustainable funding: the EU strategy should urge governments to improve the financing landscape for civil society organisations at national and local level, and devise ways to make EU funding more accessible and beneficial for grassroots civil society actors.

For our more detailed recommendations read our paper here.

Further reading on this topic:

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