In April, the EU adopted a new fund to finance rights and democracy groups in Europe, despite opposition from Poland and Hungary. The EU now seems to have become the largest single funder of non-profits fighting for fundamental freedoms inside the 27 member countries. But whether it manages to deliver a much-needed shot in the arm for civil liberties groups depends on how well the Commission can get the money to where it needs to be.
It’s taken the EU almost a decade to forge itself an arsenal of usable weapons to protect European democracies. Legislators have focused on developing instruments to wield international pressure. For example, a new annual monitoring cycle by the Commission and the prospect of financial punishment under rule of law conditionality. While they’re far from perfect and the Commission and Council often lack courage to use these tools to the full, it’s still progress.
But international pressure alone can’t save European democracies.
Governments with authoritarian ambitions in the EU aren’t violently removing human rights. Instead, they’re persuading their populations that civil liberties and the rule of law are an obstacle to a safe, healthy, prosperous life. In some countries today, politicians seem confident that if they attack democratic institutions, they can count on apathy or even approval from their voters. If our democracies are to become resilient to opportunistic politicians, they need to grow deep roots in public support.
The autocrats leading Poland and Hungary know this, which is why they tried to kill off the EU’s new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values funding programme. The fund is intended to support non-profit organisations inside the member countries to promote rights and democracy. Although the EU has long supported non-profits to carry out this kind of work in other parts of the world, this is the first such fund inside the EU. Liberties first suggested this fund in 2016 and set out a detailed proposal in 2018, which received strong support from the European Parliament.
The new fund replaces existing funding programmes that treated NGOs more like subcontractors hired on short-term projects to help the Commission implement specific EU laws and policies. The programme offers the promise of longer-term funding. This will make it easier for non-profits to plan long-term strategies and attract and retain high calibre staff. The new programme should also remove some of the heavy bureaucracy that made it impossible for smaller organisations working at local level to apply for funds in the past.
Just under half of the fund will be dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in general.
The rest is earmarked for specific themes like promoting children’s rights and fighting violence against women. The fund will support activists to litigate, carry out advocacy towards lawmakers and educate and mobilise the public. Money will also be available to build the capacity of staff at NGOs to do these things well. At the moment many organisations are good at litigating or advocacy. But most don’t have the expertise and resources to mount large successful campaigns compared to similar sectors, like the environmental movement. These are exactly the kinds of things campaigners need to be doing to build a broad constituency for rights and democracy across the EU.The 1.55 bn EUR financial package will be distributed over a seven-year period by the European Commission. It could become a significant lifeline for rights and democracy groups, which have seen a variety of measures against them across the bloc. From abusive lawsuits designed to drain their resources, to cuts or blockages of funding, to death by bureaucracy and smear campaigns.
There is no comprehensive overview showing the amount of funding dedicated to promoting human rights in the EU. But the information that does exist suggests that this new fund makes the EU the largest single donor supporting rights and democracy groups in its borders. Previously, this title was held by EEA grants, which currently invests around 200 million EUR between 2014 and 2021 (the bulk of this from the Norwegian government) in 15 EU countries to support civil society organisations to promote rights and democracy.
Whether the fund fulfils its potential depends on how enthusiastic and pragmatic the Commission can be in distributing it.
The Commission lacked any ambition to create this new fund to begin with. Perhaps because it fears it doesn’t have the staff resources to needed to administer more funds and monitor new activities. Its initial proposal was for a sum almost one third the size and didn’t even mention financial support for litigation, advocacy or campaigning. Plus, the Commission has previously insisted on applying bureaucratic requirements so rigidly that smaller organisations can’t or won’t apply. These improvements were largely pushed onto the Commission by the European Parliament.
Human rights are tools that people can use the build the lives they want to live and the communities they want to live in. But most people would probably not recognise this. If the European Commission does its job well, that could change. To safeguard our democracies, it’s not just important for the EU to be able to apply top-down political pressure. Human rights need greater popular support, so that national politicians see that attacking democracy at home is a liability among voters, rather than a crowd-pleaser.
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