EESC study: Civil society support for EU values still strong but increasingly challenged

EESC Diversity Europe Group red-flags possible consequences for future of European Union

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Hungary and Poland tend to converge both in their definitions of EU values, as well as with regard to the crucial role that the civil society sector plays in promoting them. They remain at the forefront in the defence and promotion of these values, but are increasingly challenged in their advocacy role. Different interpretations and applications of EU values in the Member States do not stem from CSO activities but from the present volatile and interdependent national, European and global contexts. These are some of the main findings of the study "Finding a new consensus on European civil society values and their evaluation", which the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has published today. The European Policy Centre carried out the study, commissioned by the EESC's Diversity Europe Group.

Arno Metzler, president of the Diversity Europe Group, said with regard to the main findings of the study: Only with a joint understanding of EU values and citizenship can we find joint solutions to common challenges in Europe and move on with European integration. Nationalism and populism will inevitably gain ground, if civil society organisations are hindered from playing their role in defending and promoting EU values, and other aspects also contribute to weakening these values. Strengthening civil society structures is therefore of utmost importance for the future of the European Union.

The new EESC study investigates the extent to which CSOs from the EU Member States in question share a common understanding of three core values of the European Union that have come under particular pressure during the various crises which have hit the EU since 2008. These values are: democracy, the rule of law and solidarity. The study explores the hurdles faced by CSOs in promoting these values and whether they will be able to continue doing so until 2030 and beyond.

Recent developments suggest that the situation for civil society is worsening in many parts of Europe and that EU values are losing ground, said Mr Metzler when setting out the background to the study. As he explained: It was important for us to learn more about the reasons behind these developments, to understand the challenges civil society organisations are facing in advocating EU values, and the degree to which these organisations have a common vision of values. The study can help outline further steps to strengthen civil society structures as well as a joint understanding of EU values and citizenship.

While the study shows that CSOs tend to converge both in their definitions of democracy, rule of law and solidarity, as well as with regard to their role in promoting them, and confirms that the civil society sector remains at the forefront in the defence and promotion of values across the EU, it also reveals that restricted access to funding, technological and generational change, and above all unfavourable political environments, are increasingly challenging their advocacy role.

More specifically, the study reveals regional similarities and differences in the way CSOs describe their situation, their perception of values and their outlook for the future, corresponding to the countries in the West (Germany and France), South (Greece and Italy), and East (Poland and Hungary) of Europe. The assessment of CSOs from Eastern Europe is comparable to that of Southern countries, but the findings portray a less favourable national political environment in the former.

This is a key finding of the study, said Mr Metzler, concluding that in the future the EESC must work towards eliminating these regional differences.

The overall picture that emerges from the study is that governments and civil society itself are becoming more confrontational, more political, more polarised and less open to compromise. While civil society organisations are experiencing increasing difficulty in engaging with state institutions impacted by political polarisation, the civil society sector is diversifying and many of the newcomers, such as grass root movements, are also less open to constructive dialogue and working within the confines of the system.

The EESC has to play its role in countering these tendencies and fostering a climate which is more understanding and open to compromise, said Mr Metzler in this regard.

According to the study, the future will require cooperation and innovation from civil society and governments at all levels, if CSOs are to be able to continue defending EU values.

On the one hand, the study suggests that EU Member States and institutions take steps to improve access to funding for CSOs, harmonise or simplify legal requirements for them and strengthen and maintain channels for civil dialogue. It also concludes that the EU institutions should ensure particular support for CSOs operating in countries with restrictive political environments and urges them to improve their communication on EU values, projects and achievements. CSOs should be actively involved in the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe where they should play a role in contributing to a common European understanding and promotion of values.

On the other hand, the study recommends that CSOs which make use of opportunities to work with like-minded organisations, including those based in other countries, European-level umbrella organisations and new movements with different methods and support bases, will be best placed to promote EU values in the coming years. It further suggests that CSOs keep up with the times and make maximum use of social media to reach out beyond their traditional audience, consider moving more of their activities online to save on operational costs, and diversify their sources of funding as much as possible. If necessary, they should make use of the full toolkit of available legal instruments.

Lastly, the study highlights that the coronavirus pandemic reduces CSOs' ability to carry out their activities. In this context, Mr Metzler and his group reiterate their call for adequate and targeted support and attention for the civil society sector. We should never forget that the sustainability and health of the European Union also depend on the everyday work of civil society organisations, he said.

Further information regarding the study:

The study relies on a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection and analysis. In particular, it draws on interviews carried out between March and June 2020 with 62 CSO representatives: 13 from Greece, 12 from Germany, 11 from France, 10 from Italy, 8 from Poland and 8 from Hungary. The CSOs interviewed cover a wide spectrum of actors, including organisations representing socially vulnerable groups and advocating active citizen participation in decision-making (26), human rights and family organisations (16), environmental CSOs (5), media (5), youth (3), religious (3) and consumer (2) organisations, as well as new grassroots movements (2).

Interested in further recommendations from the study for EU institutions, Member State governments and CSOs? The study is available on our web page.

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