The EU has to ensure that civil society is protected, not attacked

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has slammed the EU for its inadequate support and insufficient funding for civil society organisations working in the area of fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy. With civil society encountering ever more difficulties, the EESC announced that it would monitor the situation of democracy and human rights defenders more closely, both in the EU and in enlargement countries

The European Commission should urgently address funding problems encountered by civil society organisations (CSOs) across Europe in an adequate manner. These problems have been seriously jeopardising CSOs' critical mission of holding those in power to account and of preserving democracy in Europe, the EESC said on 21 September.

In a debate with the president of Civil Society Europe, Gabriella Civico, held at its plenary session, the EESC warned of the dire situation of CSOs in Europe, which are increasingly subject to various pressures, ranging from financial constraints to smear campaigns and concerted attacks on their work and credibility from a variety of actors.

Furthermore, CSO working on the most difficult social and political issues, like watchdog organisations or those promoting equality and non-discrimination, tend to have the most serious financing problems.

In the opinion Civil society support and funding in the area of fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy, adopted at the plenary session, the EESC said it was unacceptable that EU support nowhere near matches the centrality of CSOs' role in preserving democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in the EU.

This needs to be addressed immediately. To this end, the EESC:

  • supports setting up a financial instrument specifically dedicated to CSOs working on human rights and democracy within the EU, equivalent to the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) available for extra-EU activities;
  • supports the establishment of a platform similar to "Protect Defenders" for human rights defenders working in EU Member States;
  • encourages the European Commission to set up an alert and monitoring system to deal with challenges and threats facing CSOs.

The EESC put a special focus on the inadequate working conditions and poor income of people employed in the civil society sector, who are often working under great stress, with enormous risks for their mental health. This weighs on the sector's competitiveness as fewer people are motivated to work in such an environment, which directly compromises the quality of the CSOs' important mission.

At a time when democracy is in crisis, the responsibility of European institutions is huge. We need more than just good intentions. We need concrete actions that help the development of European civil society, including in the candidate countries, said rapporteur of the opinion Cristian Pîrvulescu.

The mounting difficulties in access to public funding for CSOs working in support of human rights or the rule of law are very worrying for our European democracies. Creating a specific instrument for these organisations would be a first step towards improving the system, said Ozlem Yildirim, co-rapporteur of the opinion.

EESC President Oliver Röpke announced that, in line with its recent decision to integrate Enlargement Candidate members in its work, the EESC will now also monitor developments affecting civil society in EU hopefuls. To do this, it plans to extend the mandate of its Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law Group (FRRL) – which, since 2018, has carried out numerous missions to Member States to check on the situation of CSOs – to EU candidate countries.

It is needless to say that we are in a complicated geopolitical environment, which has a direct impact on the preservation of our values. We should therefore look beyond the usual debates on the enlargement-deepening nexus. What really matters is to get rid of dividing lines in Europe: we cannot let fundamental rights, the rule of law, democracy stop at the EU border!, Mr Röpke said.

President Röpke's political programme foresees the active monitoring of the health of civil society in all Member States and in candidate countries. The move is similar to the extension of the scope of the yearly Rule of Law mechanism to enlargement countries, announced by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union speech.

Ms Civico said that support to civil society deserves a comprehensive strategy at EU level. Heading towards the European elections in 2024, we need the commitment of all the political parties and candidates for an enabling civic space and for implementing and reinforcing the already existing Treaty provisions on civic dialogue, she said.

Paul Soete, president of the EESC's FRRL group, said the group's country visits had shown that all Member States were experiencing challenges in the area of fundamental rights and the rule of law, albeit of different magnitude or occurrence.

Promotion of fundamental rights remains our priority, with a special focus on the promotion of social and economic rights and the consultation of civil society. We aim to contribute to reinforcing the role and the visibility of the EESC as a watchdog of fundamental rights, he said.