For whom the civic space is shrinking

On 16 November Vice-President and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Sylvie Guillaume invited colleagues and civil society representatives to a meeting on shrinking civic space. Transparency International defines civic space as ‘the freedom and means to speak, access information, associate, organise, and participate in public decision-making’ The discussion took its starting point from Civil Society Europe’s report on the perception of civil society organisations and activists. While shrinking civic space is predominantly a concern in Eastern Europe, a majority across Europe have experienced a deterioration of support for civil society, explained Carlotta Besozzi from Civil Society Europe. Another concern is funding restrictions, due to the economic crisis and a shift in political priorities in many countries. The report shows that civil society organisations get less financial support than before, and experience increasing pressure to deliver results. Furthermore, many civil society organisations find consultation processes with decision-makers insufficient to enable them to give concrete input that is taken on board.

I mentioned Social Platform’s round table meeting in the European Parliament the day before, about the EU Facilitation Directive that allows for individuals and civil society organisations to be prosecuted for providing humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees (read more). I welcomed the Parliament’s proposal to monitor Member States’ human rights compliance, including civic space. I added that I believe the EU Transparency Register (where lobbyist, including civil society must register in order to interact with EU decision-makers) offers an opportunity for the EU institutions to lead by example. It can encourage high-level EU officials and decision-makers to involve civil society in their work, including at national level. Finally, I pointed out the trend of civil society organisations having to rely more on private funding and limited projects instead of more long-term core public funding. In addition, I believe that we can do more to exchange good practices of civil dialogue, such as the structured dialogue Social Platform has with the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumers Affairs Council (EPSCO) and the European Commission’s High Level Group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance that invites Member States and civil society organisations on equal footing.

Sophie In’t Veld MEP, author of the Parliament’s report on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights (read more) questioned for whom the space is shrinking. Human rights organisations might have reduced space, but organisations wanting to restrict rights, such as the anti-choice movement and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) is receiving more funding and space. Conny Reuter from SOLIDAR added that we alone do not get to define what civil society is. Therefore, we need to explain the value of civil society as such, as it is an essential part of democracy and resilient societies said Jorgo Riss from Greenpeace and the ‘Green 10’ network.

Berber Biala from the Amnesty International EU Office and the Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRND) agreed that for us in Brussels it has become more difficult than before to reach out to the EU institutions. Shrinking space is an issue for civil society organisations outside and inside the EU alike. For civil society organisations in countries such as Russia, Israel and Egypt, civic space is disappearing. Consequently people find it extremely difficult – and sometimes even impossible – to work in international civil society organisations, which impacts their interaction with the EU, said Elena Valenciano MEP. Kersty McCourt from the HRDN added that actions within the EU have consequences, for example when the United Kingdom wanted to restrict funding for advocacy it gave ammunition to governments in other countries to limit civil society organisations’ advocacy work. Particularly worrying is the EU’s work on counter-terrorism, which has not involved civil society and is a key driver of closing civic space. We need benchmarks to monitor and measure progress and how the EU is responding to the shrinking civic space, said Ms McCourt.