The EU's human rights civil society organisations report more difficulties in their work

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A report by the EU's decentralised agency specialising in fundamental rights testifies to the ever-shrinking space for civil society in the EU, EESC-hosted event reveals

On Friday, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), in partnership with its Liaison Group with European civil society organisations and networks, hosted the launch of a report prepared by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which warns of the shrinking space for civil society action and attempts to thwart the valuable work of civil society organisations (CSOs) that fight for the respect of human rights in the European Union.

The report "Challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU", which focuses on the period between 2011 and 2017, highlights some troubling difficulties increasingly encountered by EU civil society organisations in carrying out their work. It divides them roughly into several areas:

  • Legal restrictions that can range from difficulties in setting up an organisation to those relating to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, expression and information. For example, in some Member States, CSOs may face criminal charges for criticising officials, heads of state, or the state itself;
  • Obstacles blocking access to resources, especially structural and long-term financing, which are essential for CSOs' sustainability;
  • Stigmatisation and attempts to discredit them, as well as physical and verbal attacks against activists, instead of a protected environment in which to carry out their activities;
  • Difficulties in positively influencing legislation and policy-making as a recognised legitimate actor.

Speaking at the launch event, the President of the EESC's Various Interests Group, Luca Jahier, noted the decline in citizens' participation in CSOs due to individualism and digitalisation.

"People are using social media for their activism, instead of joining CSOs. To reverse this tendency, civil society has to reflect on how to better engage with grassroots movements," he said.

Addressing the problem of access to funds, the EESC had recommended the creation of a European fund for democracy, human rights and values, available to European CSOs when working within the EU's borders, said Mr Jahier, adding that the fund would be similar to the successful European Endowment for Democracy, which was created to foster democracy outside the EU.

"This fund should have an ambitious budget, and I am pleased that the FRA report explicitly supports this proposal," noted Mr Jahier.

The EESC also recommends establishing an EU coordinator on civil society freedoms, and the creation of a legally binding European monitoring mechanism, involving the EC, the Council, the EP and the EESC, which would monitor and evaluate the situation in Member States.

"It is politically delicate to interfere in the shrinking national civic space, but it is necessary to defend the idea that the EU is a union of common values," explained Mr Jahier.

Michael O’Flaherty, the FRA's director, also called for urgent action by Member States with regard to regulatory pressures, financing, ensuring a safe space for CSOs and respecting the rights of people with disabilities:

"Member States should pay increased attention to damaging or unexpected consequences when drafting or implementing legislation which can potentially affect CSOs, especially when it comes to counter-terrorism, transparency or lobbying," he maintained, also calling on the EU and Member States to comply with the effective free movement of capital and to unblock foreign funding.

Member States should also actively condemn crimes committed against CSOs and their members, taking steps to avoid their stigmatisation.

Full support should be given to organisations representing persons with disabilities, said Mr O'Flaherty.

In its report, the FRA points to the undeniable role played by CSOs in the consolidation of democracies, emphasising that their strength is directly proportional to the health of a democratic state.

However, CSOs' activities are not always welcome at the national level, especially when they criticise breaches of fundamental rights by campaigning, raising awareness, undertaking human rights and civic education, advocacy and litigation, or via "watchdog" activities.

On the other hand, some of their activities are perceived as more than welcome, because they step in to replace social aspects of Member States' governments (such as healthcare and social services).

The report concludes that, in order to strongly support the protection, promotion and full exercise of human rights, there is an urgent need to put all the suggestions given by the FRA and other EU bodies, such as the EESC, into practice, and to strengthen the effectiveness of CSOs within the EU.


EESC opinions on the subject:

Financing of civil society organisations by the EU

European control mechanism on the rule of law and fundamental rights

Funding effectiveness / fighting poverty and social exclusion

The 2030 Agenda – a European Union committed to sustainable development globally

New measures for development-oriented governance and implementation

Maximising the contribution of ESI Funds

Annual Growth Survey 2016

EU Enlargement Strategy

Financing development – the position of civil society

Articles 11(1) and 11(2) of the Lisbon Treaty

Statute for a European Foundation

Europe for Citizens Programme (2014-2020)