Speech by President Séamus Boland, EESC plenary debate on the support for civil society in the area of fundamental rights in Member States and enlargement countries

Plenary debate with Gabriella Civico, President of Civil Society Europe

Dear Gabriella, dear colleagues,

1989 marked the victory of liberal democracies. But today, liberal democracy and civic freedom are very much under attack;

It is not an exaggeration to speak of 'democracy's retreat';

The EU has made the defence of democracy a central pillar to its identity and values;

But what we should remember, is that democracy cannot be taken for granted -it has to be nurtured and protected every day;

And allow me to quote the 19th Century American abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who stated and I quote: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance".  Wise words spoken 200 years ago;

Already in 2017, the think tank Freedom House announced that only 13% of the world's population live in a country with true free press;

This is shocking, when we reflect on how independent thinking is a precondition for democratic life!

Of course, independent civil society organisations also play a pivotal role in maintaining the resilience of our democracies;

On several occasions I have spoken of the role of CSOs as 'guardians of the common good';

Independent CSOs build mutual trust in societies, shape public opinions and act as positive agents of change;

However, CSOs are facing increasing challenges, especially those working in the area of democracy, fundamental rights, equality and the rule of law;

These CSOs have to deal with increasing hostility from some governments and other actors and they have difficulties to access finance and media outlets;

Moreover, as a report by the EESC's FRRL Group noted, more and more there is a redirection of funding, towards CSOs performing social services provision, rather than human rights advocacy or monitoring.

Overall, the scope and extent of EU support for CSOs, does not match their pivotal role in our democracies, nor the responsibilities that we have given them;

This should be remedied as soon as possible and I fully support the proposal in the draft Opinion for creating a financial instrument specifically dedicated to EU-based CSOs working on human rights and democracy, equivalent to the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR);

In addition, the EU should take full responsibility for the protection of CSOs and create a system allowing them to operate while facing financial uncertainty, marginalisation or governmental repression;

I also call on the EC to update the Rule of Law Report, to highlight the role of civil society organisations and to shed light on the obstacles and responsibilities of Member States to address these;

Dear colleagues, my time is short, so my last plea is that civil society protection objectives should be built into EC planning, especially of the disbursement of funds.

Thank you for your attention.

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Speech by Séamus Boland on the support for civil society in the area of fundamental rights in Member States and enlargement countries