New findings from FRA Civic Space report show our voice in Europe still needs protection
On Wednesday 18 October 2023, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) issued the report “Civic space update 2023”, the annual update of its first report “Challenges facing civil society working on human rights in the EU” (2018) on the developments of civic space in the EU.
Social Platform has long championed a greater role for civil dialogue and stronger civic space. In view of next year’s EU elections, together with Civil Society Europe and a wide coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) we have launched the campaign Civil Society for EU, whose manifesto calling for stronger support, protection and engagement of civil society has been signed already by over 150 CSOs all over Europe.
The key findings from FRA report align with our manifesto and shed light once again on the urgent need for concrete actions to protect civic space and improve the engagement of civil society in policy making.
On a positive note, the 2023 update – covering civic space developments in the EU in 2022 – highlights a general trend of increased understanding and awareness of the challenges that CSOs face. The report also highlights other positive developments, notably:
- Challenges related to emergency laws decreased from 2020 and 2021 to 2022, corresponding to the gradual lifting of the emergency provisions adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Several Member States have set up or improved their structures and processes for ensuring meaningful civil society engagement.
- Donors – notably the EU through the CERV programme – have gradually started to adjust their funding giving more consideration to advocacy on civic space and capacity building
However, despite improvements in some areas, the overall picture emerging from FRA analysis shows how civil society is still facing a worrying number of obstacles in the EU and neighbouring countries.
Challenges to civic space and civil dialogue
CSOs and human rights defenders reported to continue to experience threats and attacks across all EU Member States. In particular, 46% out of the 400 CSOs consulted indicated having experienced negative media reports/campaigns in 2022, 44% online threats or harassment, 36% excessive administrative controls or audits. Even more worryingly, around half (48%) of those who reported having faced some form of threat and attack against their organisation identified a state/public actor as the main perpetrator of these attacks.
European CSOs also continue to face a variety of legal challenges, similar to previous years. 21% reported tightening of rules on assemblies and association, while accessing information remains an issue for 32% of respondents. Furthermore, difficulties related to resources persisted in 2022, especially in finding relevant opportunities for financial support (67% of CSOs at the national/local level, 58% at the international/EU level), as well as about accessing, applying to, using and reporting of funding.
FRA report highlights how procedures allowing CSOs to participate effectively in policy- and decision-making remain patchy. Despite some positive improvements in a few Member States, CSOs are often still unable to access relevant information or clear standards or guidelines to support their contribution. Significant differences also emerge between the national and EU level: while 58 % of the responding CSOs found the quality of EU consultations acceptable, the percentage drops to 38 % for national consultations.
The report also outlines some recommendations and ways forward to countering the shrinking civic space trend, which are in line with the main asks of our Civil Society for EU campaign.
EU institutions should better monitor the civic space and ensure that both EU and national legislation uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, in compliance with international human rights standards. Civil society actors and human rights defenders should be effectively involved in this process, and EU and national legislations potentially affecting civic space and civic freedoms should be carefully assessed to avoid unintended negative impacts. Moreover, the EU should consider setting up a protection mechanism for inside the EU building on the existing external EU human rights defenders mechanism, to ensure civil society actors and defenders have the possibility to report and be protected against threats and attacks.
EU institutions and Member States should also ensure that the legal and policy environment facilitates the access of CSOs to funding, as well as provide adequate financial support for advocacy and watchdog functions, capacity building, litigation and community engagement, among others. Increased core and multiannual funding opportunities – as opposed to project-based funding – is also a key need for civil society actors, as pointed out by 65% of respondents to FRA consultation.
Last but not least, to achieve functioning and meaningful civil dialogue the EU should harmonize the different practices and standards and set up a dedicated framework allowing for open, transparent and regular exchange between civil society and policy makers at the EU and national level. Such a framework should include clear, common guidelines, as well as dedicated resources for officials and civil society actors involved in the dialogue, both in terms of capacity building and financial resources.
Do you have any question or want to get in touch? Write to the campaign coordinator Riccardo Rossella – firstname.lastname@example.org