Civic space in Europe

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On Friday 22 June 2018, Civil Society Europe and Civicus released a 2017 report on civic space in Europe. The aim of this study is to collect trends relating to civic space in the various Member States of the European Union. This study is based on the perceptions of civil society organisations at a local and national level within the European Union.

For Civil Society Europe and Civicus, the starting point is that there is some trust on the part of civil society organisations within the European Union regarding the freedoms of association, assembly and expression. Nevertheless, there are significant differences of opinion between the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, followed by a lack of social and political progress.

What is civic space?

Civic space is the place where each individual has the right to express himself freely, to organize and to mobilize. Civic space is composed of three fundamental freedoms[1]. Freedom of association represents the right to freely associate, join, form a civil society organization or group. Freedom of expression is the right to hold opinions, receive and impart information through all channels, regardless of frontiers. Finally, freedom of assembly is the right of civil society to come together to peacefully challenge political or societal measures. It is also the right to organize themselves in demonstrations in order to raise issues of common interest.

These freedoms are essential to democracy. They enable all people living in Europe to have access to and participate in debates and to contribute to political decision-making.

How are these freedoms perceived in the civic space in Europe? 

The perception of respect for freedoms in the civic space by individuals varies according to the geographical situation of States in the Union. Indeed, western European countries are more likely to rate it positively at 94%, than southern or eastern countries at 24% and 17% respectively. In addition, it can be stressed that the individuals interviewed support civil society organisations. While only 13% of respondents think that EU institutions take appropriate measures to ensure civic space in their country, 66% think they are inactive or not doing enough. Here again, pessimism is particularly important in the countries of the East and South of the Union.

Freedom of expression is perceived as good and very good by 56% of respondents in the EU. It is considered as average by 18% of individuals, and poor or extremely poor by 26% of respondents. Despite the different reasons given by different States, two arguments emerge: the increased visibility given to extremist opinions and the predominance of economic interests in access to information of general interest.

Freedom of assembly is perceived as respected in their State by 66% of respondents, while 26% think it is moderately respected and 8% think it is not or very little respected. One of the recurring arguments is the prevalence given to security rather than rights and freedoms. This would undermine freedoms within the civic space in several states and strengthen police powers. For example, in Poland in November 2016, the Freedom of Assembly Act was amended to limit this right. In addition, the new law also includes a ban on spontaneous demonstrations [2].

Finally, with regard to freedom of association, the conditions in the civic space were rated good or very good by 75% of those questioned in the Union, average by 21% of people and poor or extremely poor by 4%. Despite a positive majority, some limitations to freedom of expression persist: a lack of participation by civil society organisations in the development of public policies and in access to information of public interest, a steady decline in public funds, or defamation campaigns of civil society organisations by the media and governments. For example, one Portuguese citizen stated that “dialogue with the State is fluid, but there are difficulties in the participation of civil society organisations in terms of planning”.

It is important to note that civic space at the local level is more dynamic than at the national level. Indeed, the participation and recognition of civil society organisations is most often encouraged by local authorities. For example, in the Netherlands, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and many local governments provide funding and material support to civil society groups. Moreover, in Italy, several municipalities offer free meeting or workspaces to NGOs.

Nevertheless, the persistent problem remains the lack of funding. Among all those interviewed, there is clear support in the cross-border collaboration of civil society organisations in favour of civic space (90%). European mutual assistance is fundamental for organisations to gain visibility and acquire better practices. In Romania, NGOs experience an extreme shortage of funding, as most of the funds come from the European Union, and the selection of projects is made by state institutions. These are perceived as corrupt.

According to the study, 70% of respondents consider that democratic principles are strongly defended in their country. However, overall, almost 30% consider that respect for democratic principles is insufficient. The majority of comments stress that the difficulties in accessing information of general interest are due to the lack of financial means of civil societies and therefore a lack of will on the part of governments. In some countries, such as Romania, Poland, Hungary or Croatia, the campaign against NGOs is conducted by the government in order to reduce credibility, discourage mobilisation and isolate critical voices. Indeed, in Hungary, legislation stigmatising NGOs was passed in the summer of 2017. This campaign of denigration was successful because of the government’s influence on the media. This political climate coupled with a lack of government funding is jeopardising the financial longevity of these organisations.

Moreover, by 2017, public actions highlighted and denounced by whistleblowers are becoming significantly more difficult to identify for 23% of respondents, compared to 8% who think it has become easier. In some states, notably Germany, Denmark and Sweden, the government was encouraged to adopt legislation favourable to whistleblowers because of public pressure. Other states, in particular Romania, have suggested that, although the public is increasingly sensitive to these issues, the government will not implement relevant legislation to respond to popular mobilisation. Finally, the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist of Maltese origin, on EU soil in October 2017 suggests that the EU should make the protection of whistleblowers a priority.

What recommendations for the Union and its Member States?

An Estonian citizen stressed: “We need more accountability and involvement in the development and implementation of public policies. Civic space is not only about enabling civil society organisations to function, but also about integrating citizen participation into governance processes”. Indeed, the Union and the Member States should increase the quality and transparency of democratic participation by encouraging dialogues with civil society organisations. It is indeed important to strengthen exchanges for the implementation and evaluation of public policies and their legislation. In particular by reforming the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) and making it more functional. It must ensure political debate and greater transparency in its follow-up.

Beyond improving dialogues, the European Union should also recognise the value and specificity of civil society organisations through legislative and media campaigns. It is important to actively promote their democratic participation through, for example, voluntary engagement. Indeed, ensuring transparency and accountability at all levels is essential for meaningful engagement of civil society in public policymaking. Moreover, it would be advisable to encourage civic education in the educational systems of all Member States. Funding from the European Union should be subject to more accessible procedures, especially for civil society organisations working for human rights and small organizations at the local level. In addition, budget cuts affect the ability of civil societies, and in particular those with small NGOs, to have their voice heard at a European level. Once again, respondents stress that it is difficult to reach European institutions despite the measures in place, such as the ECI.

The Union should act more harshly against violations of the rule of law at national level, as well as the violation of fundamental rights and freedoms, by putting in place instruments for the monitoring and the protection of the rule of law. Some respondents suggested suspending European funding for states that do not respect the rule of law and the freedoms that flow from it.

The survey concludes and confirms that the trend in 2017 has been the reduction of civic space in Europe. A number of mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that people living in Europe are fully informed of their fundamental rights and of both European and international human rights treaties to which their states are a party. The rule of law must be applied to all the countries of the Union and those awaiting accession in order to exchange and coordinate respect for civil liberties.

Civil society support must be more visible between the European institutions and the Member States. The survey shows that European civil society organisations expect a stronger commitment from the Union to respect fundamental rights. The European institutions, and first and foremost the European Commission, must develop a broad public awareness campaign on fundamental rights, including the rights and obligations arising from the Treaties.  The EU institutions must appoint a European Coordinator on Civic Space and Democracy to organise the work of the Union and the Member States, monitor and receive reports from civil society on incidents related to any harassment or violation of these freedoms. This includes forms of litigation against public participation that seek to intimidate civil society organisations by imposing high costs on them for legal defence.

Finally, the EU strategy must also include actions to implement Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which establishes that the EU institutions have an obligation to engage with citizens and their representative associations. It is therefore necessary to set up structured dialogue mechanisms between the Union and civil society organisations.

Link to the report