The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has urged the EU institutions to adopt zero tolerance towards Member State attitudes and practices that hamper the work of civil society and shrink its space in Europe.
To counter such developments, the EESC is asking the EU to take a number of measures, such as withholding EU funds from countries that do not observe EU values, in order to ensure the full participation of civil society in all stages of policy-making and to safeguard participatory democracy in Europe.
In the opinion The role of civil society organisations as guardians of the common good in the post-pandemic recovery, adopted at its last plenary in May, the EESC stated that Europe’s civil society is still facing many major barriers, with its space drastically reduced in some parts of the EU. This is despite the fact that civil society played a key role in cushioning the effects of the pandemic and that its help for Ukrainian refugees was exemplary from the very first day of the Russian aggression.
Civil society has been a driving force in helping our society to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, the Ukraine crisis has clearly shown the value and significance of civil society for our democracies. It has shown how reactive, flexible and imaginative it can be. We have seen it adapt from one crisis to another, receptive to people's needs, fearless in the face of danger and ready to take on any challenge, no matter how big, says rapporteur for the opinion, Ioannis Vardakastanis.
Now that civil society is about to play a key role in building back from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis, which will require the participation of all parts of society, the EU must ensure there is dialogue between civil society and policy-makers, as the lack of such dialogue is one of the main barriers faced by Europe's civil society at all levels.
Another barrier is the absence of civil society's meaningful involvement in decision-making processes relating to important policies and legislation. Preparing the opinion the EESC held hearings in several Member States, which provided invaluable information on the cooperation of national and local authorities with civil society actors.
"In some Member States, there is a long tradition of policy-makers working alongside civil society and the social partners, whereas in others, this is not the case. In some countries, there are even efforts to shrink the civil space", Mr Vardakastanis said.
In the EESC's view, the EU institutions must adopt
zero tolerance to these attitudes and must react
strongly and uncompromisingly, as the inclusion of civil society in the policy-making process is inseparable from the EU's values and the EU Treaties. To eliminate such practices, legal regulations should be put in place at the European and national level.
There can be no place for the repression of social dialogue and civil society dialogue in the EU. Respect for EU values should be a prerequisite for Member States to receive EU funding, Mr Vardakastanis stressed.
Among other measures proposed by the EESC are the adoption of an interinstitutional agreement on civil dialogue, the drafting of guidelines and common standards on the right to association and the definition of participatory status, which the EU has not yet created for European associations and NGOs.
Recognising and promoting the role of associations and NGOs in the European Union framework would also be vastly beneficial to improving the partnership between policy-makers and civil society at EU level. Civil society organisations should receive financial and technical support from EU, local and national authorities to develop their roles, but without compromising their independence.
According to the EESC, upholding EU values is not only about being open to engaging with civil society, but also about enabling their work even when they are critical of your policies or politically opposed to you.
Member States that accept dialogue only with specially selected and government-sympathetic organisations, as a box-ticking exercise, are as guilty of undemocratic practices as governments that do not engage with civil society at all, the EESC stated.
National recovery and resilience plans - a case in point
The current situation is far from ideal.
Dialogue with civil society is often sketchy, with policy-makers failing to understand the varying needs of people belonging to different social groups, especially those from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds, and subsequently failing to serve their interests.
Furthermore, civil society and the social partners are too often only consulted as a formality or are just asked to rubber stamp proposals when they are already nearly complete.
One such example is the national recovery and resilience plans (NRRPs). Despite the clear obligation to do so, many Member States seemed unwilling to include civil society in the design of these plans, cutting many of them out completely or involving them only superficially.
We are facing unprecedented developments, entering a new era in which the role of civil society and the social partners needs to be examined and followed up continuously to make sure they are at the heart of developments, Mr Vardakastanis concluded.