“Imagine what a world would look like without civil society.” This was the challenge posed in the final report of Maina Kiai, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, in June 2017. He argued that although silencing critics might seem to bring short-term electoral benefits, limiting the space for civil society is harmful for the continued existence of pluralist democracies.
In the public statements of European Union institutions, the EU is steadfast in defending the consensus that civil society is a fundamental pillar of open and democratic societies. Yet over the last few years, and particularly during 2017, some EU governments took definitive action to close the public space for debate and free expression. Hungary, Poland and Romania, for example, have introduced laws designed to restrict and undermine civil society, accompanied by public vilification of individuals and organizations:
- In Hungary, a law stigmatizes NGOs who receive foreign funding.
- In Poland, a new government body has been created to manage the distribution of public funds to NGOs, increasing the likelihood that political interference will affect allocations to NGOs critical of government policy.
- In Romania, the government has put forward a bill which imposes disproportionate reporting requirements on NGOs.
These are dangerous steps away from the commitments that these countries made when they joined the EU, and EU leaders need to be clear about what society loses when independent voices are silenced. There are five key areas for EU action—recognition, communication, leadership, litigation, and protection:
1. Recognize the Problem
There is limited awareness among EU policymakers of the scale and the impact of attacks on organizations that promote human rights in Europe. These are not limited to the legislative proposals in Hungary, Poland, or Romania.
For example, the right to peaceful protest has been curtailed in countries such as France and Spain, while the UK has questioned the use of public funds by organizations engaged in critical campaign work. Together, these actions show a pattern that European governments are increasingly tempted to use policies that suppress civil society in order to stifle criticism and oversight of government activities.
The pattern has deep consequences. It is time to recognize what is happening, sound the alarm, and respond. This week, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights will release a report that examines the closing space for civil society within Europe. This is an important and timely step—and the first time that threats to civic space across Europe have been reviewed by an EU institution. EU institutions and governments should immediately take action to address the agency’s findings and develop an adequate response.
2. Communicate Effectively
Legislative restrictions on civil society have been reinforced by smear campaigns. In Hungary, in particular, unsubstantiated attacks and disinformation campaigns have been used to ensure restrictive legislation is passed. Civil society groups and individuals are threatened and delegitimized through insinuations of foreign influence and a desire to undermine national identities and values.
In Hungary, but also in Italy, political party campaigns have targeted the funding of George Soros; in Romania, government-controlled media outlets have doubled down on outrageous claims, even going so far as to report that Soros was paying dogs to join protests critical of the government.
Organizations working with migrants and asylum seekers have been subjected to particularly malicious attacks. In Italy, NGOs conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean have been accused of colluding with smugglers. They have also been co-opted into a “voluntary” code of conduct that undermines their independence. The sustained campaign of misinformation by several parties has resulted in an all-time low in public support for the work of NGOs.
Once a negative narrative takes hold, it is difficult to regain public trust. EU institutions must recognize what is at stake and engage in an innovative and sustained effort to communicate to Europeans about the vital role that civil society plays in democratic societies.
3. Take the Lead
The protection of civic space—including freedom of association, assembly, and expression—needs to be designated as a specific objective in the mandate of the EU’s first vice-president in charge of rule of law and fundamental rights.
This leadership should be accompanied by increased capacity across the EU institutions to monitor, assess, and respond to threats to civil society in a timely manner. In addition to public statements by high-level officials and politicians, the FRA should be able to carry out on-the-ground assessments, provide legal opinions and advise EU policy makers on specific action to hold governments accountable for any abuse and promote an enabling and safe environment for NGOs.
In April 2017, the European Commission initiated legal action against Hungary on the basis that the NGO law disproportionately restricts donations from abroad to civil society organizations, and thus breaches the free movement of capital as well as the rights enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is a significant step and the first time the EU has taken legal action to defend civil society against repressive measures undertaken by member state governments.
The commission needs to further study how to create the necessary legal framework to allow independent civil society to function without government interference. At present, the commission has only a bare minimum of resources to investigate the impact of NGO laws and to protect civil society.
A good start would be for the commission to undertake an overall assessment of any new NGO legislation to ensure compliance with both EU law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. All EU institutions should engage with lawyers and organizations with expertise in protecting civil society.
Organizations and individuals who face threats need to be able to seek protection and support. Legal advice and psychosocial support is particularly needed. National authorities should designate a focal point for human rights defenders, who can track attacks on individual defenders and coordinate an appropriate response with the police and interior and foreign affairs ministries. In its foreign policy, the EU supports a number of mechanisms to protect human rights defenders, which could be replicated within the Union.
Adequate and flexible funding is critical. As a funder, the EU has an important role to play, alongside others, to ensure that resources are available to NGOs so that they can develop medium- to long-term strategies, maintain a watchdog role and respond to emerging threats.
In conclusion, the essential conditions of EU membership—democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the protection of minorities—cannot be maintained without the active participation of a free and independent civil society. The coming year will be crucial for the European Commission and Parliament to develop further tools to defend civil society organizations ahead of the European elections, decisions on the next EU budget, and the new term of the European Commission.