Under attack from all sides – overburdened and exhausted, civil society needs more support

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - 2020/09/18: A female climate activist being arrested by the Dutch police during the demonstration....

With populism and authoritarianism on the rise across Europe, civil society organisations face growing hostility. Battling with financial constraints, smear campaigns, political attacks and legal and administrative obstacles, they urgently need reinforced support on all fronts to be able to play their key role of making our societies more open, more accountable and just.

On 4 April, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a public hearing on Civil society support and funding in the area of fundamental rights, rule of law and democracy which shed light on the increasing difficulties faced by civil society organisations (CSOs) working on human rights and democracy in the EU.

We have heard hundreds of testimonies of CSOs active in the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They are generally confronted with increasing difficulties, ranging from changing regulations to financing constraints. As they work on sensitive issues, they have become more and more stigmatised and discredited, said Helena de Felipe Lehtonen, Vice-President of the EESC's Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL Group).

The EESC's FRRL Group, which organised the hearing, has so far been on 22 country visits in the EU to find out about the situation in Member States in the areas of fundamental rights and the rule of law. The hearing was held to gather input from stakeholders, in particular civil society organisations and grant-making organisations for the upcoming EESC opinion on the topic, drafted by Cristian Pîrvulescu and Ozlem Yildirim, President and Vice-President of the FRRL Group respectively.

Participants in the hearing all welcomed the European Commission's increased budget for financing civil society under the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) programme, with calls for proposals generating more than 2 600 applications (with one third successful). Under the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the CERV budget amounts to EUR 1.55 billion, of which one third is reserved specifically for CSOs.

According to the EESC, the development of the CERV programme was a step in the right direction, but the amounts and use of funds, the duration of contracts, and flexibility of application should be further improved to provide CSOs with the long-term support they need to confront the critical times we live in.

Substantial efforts had already been made in the CERV programme in the area of regranting, which is designed to make the EU contribution go grassroots – to small organisations that otherwise would not be able to ask for funding on their own, Valeria Setti of the European Commission said.

Regranting is carried out via intermediaries of which a majority are networks with a thorough knowledge of the situation on the ground and the real needs of potential local beneficiaries. In this way, we can make sure that funding opportunities are better known at the local level, Ms Setti said.

Independent CSOs are allies of the EU institutions in strengthening the resilience of our democracy. It is the shared responsibility of the EU and Member States to foster a supportive and enabling environment for them at national and local level, Ms Setti said.

Carlotta Besozzi of Civil Society Europe stressed that CSOs with monitoring and advocacy roles were increasingly challenged, not only in terms of attacks, smear campaigns or restrictions to freedom of assembly, but also through proposed rules to limit funding. Such rules sometimes led to the criminalisation of human rights activities in areas like aid to migrants.

Ms Besozzi reiterated the call made by several CSOs for an EU civil society strategy which could provide a framework to ensure more concrete and long-term support to civil society.

Eszter Hartay, European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, warned of the poor design or intentional misuse of certain laws, for example in the area of money laundering, leading banks to turn away from non-profit clients like CSOs. She also called for a reinforcement of safeguards to ensure that the use of technology, including algorithms, does not adversely affect civic space. CSOs have, for example, recently expressed concern regarding surveillance measures in preparation around the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

According to Ms Hartay, the EU needed to come up with more carefully crafted and balanced rules and systematic impact assessment of Artificial Intelligence systems in the area of human rights and civil society.

Marisa Gomez Crespo of Spain's Plataforma de ONG de Acción Social said a Europe-wide civil society strategy would support CSOs to work better in strengthening the EU's values. In Spain alone, there are 27 000 CSOs and they recorded 46 million incidences of providing assistance or advice to people facing exclusion.

Civil society needs to be acknowledged not only as an ally of the European institutions, but also as a protected value and an asset in its own right, said Veronika Móra of Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation Ökotárs. She added that funding civil society should not be considered as charity but as normal support for the key public role played by CSOs. Ms Móra also supported the idea of an EU civil society strategy, which should look at how to empower, engage, protect and support civil society.

Funding of civil society – a litmus test for democracy

Although the CERV programme was to be applauded, speakers in the hearing stressed that further improvements were needed such as increasing the funding allocated, but also supporting the operational costs of eligible organisations, expanding funds to smaller CSOs and decreasing administrative burdens.

The funds that reach the national level and grassroots level vary significantly from country to country. Application for funds and reporting obligations continue to be burdensome, said Stefania Andersen from Romania's Civil Society Development Foundation. She also raised the problem of the excessively short timeframe for most grants, which forced CSOs to go through a complicated reapplication procedures to seek long-term support. In her view, funding should have a multiannual basis and take better account of factors like inflation.

Leif Trana of Norway/EEA Grants, said that, through its Active Citizens Fund, his organisation was one of the primary supporters of independent civil society in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.

The high response to our open calls shows that the initiatives supported by the Active Citizens Fund fill an important funding gap in the Beneficiary States (15 EU Cohesion countries), Mr Trana said.

Norway/EEA Grants works with a network of independent national fund operators (a consortia of CSOs) which allows them to understand the needs of civil society and makes them more accessible to local CSOs.

Hanna Surmatz of Philea, a network of 250 philanthropic foundations, spoke about the need to harness the potential of philanthropy. Philanthropic organisations currently face restrictions in their operations in many ways, ranging from legal and tax obstacles to foreign funding limits. Ms Surmatz remarked that the EU single market and freedom of movement of capital did not work in the same way for all actors: unlike businesses, philanthropic organisations could not operate freely across borders, move their headquarters or merge their operations.

Philanthropic foundations are part of civil society and at the same time they also support other civil society organisations. They potentially come in as implementing partners of EU funding, but also come in as individual donors and supporters of the sector, Ms Surmatz said. To be able to support other civil society actors, the philanthropic sector needs an overall enabling environment.

If there was ever a time to step up support for CSOs that act as watchdogs and guarantors of European democracy, it is now, said Elisa Peter of Civitates, a philanthropic initiative made up of 20 private foundations which have pooled their resources to support CSOs defending democracy and promoting solidarity in the EU.

The results of a recent Civitates survey, conducted among its grantees, revealed that there was not enough funding to support organisations that worked to protect and promote European values, fundamental rights and the rule of law. Many were surviving hand to mouth with funding for short-term projects.

That said, funding alone, however substantial, will not be enough. Civil society, and in particular environmental and human rights advocates, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists and anti-corruption activists, must also be supported in exercising their watchdog role free of fear of retaliation. This means ensuring a legal and justice system that allows them to register, operate and perform their role as 'essential workers for democracyć and effectively fighting attempts to silence them, Ms Peter concluded.