Democracy & Justice

Europe Day: A Time to Remember that the EU Needs to Look After Democracy’s Watchdogs

Europe Day should remind us that the values we share can only thrive when they are nurtured, and that the EU needs to help protect those who tend to our democracies.

by Israel Butler & Linda Ravo

Europe Day is an occasion to remind ourselves that what unites us is greater than what divides us. The EU gives people a way to come together across national, cultural and religious differences to pursue values we all share, like democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. Populist authoritarians do their best to divide us based on where we’re from, who we love, or who we pray to.

But in reality, most of us want the same things, like leaders who do what’s best for their people and governments that give all of us the same opportunities. On Europe Day we should remember civil society organisations which, along with journalists and other watchdogs, work to bring these values to life and keep our societies free and fair.

Increasingly, these keepers of democracy are under attack, and not just from the usual authoritarian suspects. Government-orchestrated smear campaigns, funding restrictions and unjust constraints on their ability to perform their work threaten their existence – and, in turn, threaten our rights and democracy.

Governments turn the screw

Even in traditionally strong democracies, civil society organisations (CSOs) are under pressure. In France, a new law allows the government to close or deny public funding to organisations whose work it considers not in line with “national values”. The latter has been left undefined, perhaps intentionally. The recent dissolution of two groups, the Collective against Islamophobia in France and Coordination against Racism and Islamophobia, shows the government will use this power.

The governments of Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary and Slovenia have all recently made life harder for CSOs. In Germany, for example, centre-right politicians, under pressure from corporate lobbyists, have exploited outdated legislation to have tax courts strip CSOs promoting causes that interfere with their profits, like environmental protection, of their tax exempt status.

Things are considerably worse in countries that are pursuing a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy. After the Court of Justice ruled Hungary’s anti-NGO law broke EU law, the government simply replaced it with another problematic law. The Polish government, which has in the past orchestrated smear campaigns against CSOs promoting equality for LGBTIQ persons and access to abortion, now harasses organisations assisting people attempting to flee to Poland from Belarus.

Wearing down activists through bogus lawsuits

As well as smear campaigns and restrictive laws, some politicians and corporations use bogus lawsuits to stop CSOs and journalists from exposing unethical and illegal activity. These are known as SLAPPs: strategic lawsuits against public participation. Wrongdoers launch SLAPPs with no intention to win. Rather, they use their resources to drag watchdogs through drawn-out court battles that drain the finances and resistance of activists and journalists. The end goal is to deter CSOs and the media from exposing unethical or illegal activity or mobilising the public.

For example, in March 2022, Greenpeace Spain and other groups were sued for defamation by agribusiness Valle de Odieta, after exposing water and soil pollution from a giant industrial cow farm owned by the company. In Slovenia, one of the Friday cycling protests' figureheads was ordered by the state attorney to pay more than 50,000 euros in fines, allegedly to cover the costs of policing the anti-government protests.

Positive signs buoy hope for change

The European Commission has recognised that SLAPPs are a problem for democracy. Last month, it launched a proposal for legislation to tackle SLAPPs. It also stepped up support for CSOs through increased funding opportunities (under the new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme), and promised to look into the state of civic space in a forthcoming report expected at the end of this year.

In other areas, too, there are reasons to be hopeful for the future of democracy. The Commission has finally used new powers to stop EU funds flowing to Hungary. The government has used EU money to line the pockets of business allies who help keep it in power. And election results in France and Slovenia show that voters are resistant to the misinformation and division peddled by the far-right in those countries.

But despite these reasons for hope, this Europe Day should remind us that the values we share can only thrive when they are nurtured, and that the EU needs to better protect those who tend to our democracies. Helping to grow public support for CSOs’ efforts, protecting activists from attacks, securing an enabling framework for them to do their work, and easing access to funding should be priorities if the EU is serious about making democracy work for all of us.

This op-ed was published in the euobserver

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