Civil Society Under Pressure in Europe – Insights from the Latest Rule of Law Report

A new report from the Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law (FRRL) Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) highlights the growing challenges civil society organisations face in Europe. The report was unveiled on 7 November during the FRRL Group's conference on the current state of the rule of law and its impact on civic space.

The fourth annual EESC conference on fundamental rights and the rule of law examined the emerging trends and challenges, and civil society's indispensable role in overseeing and upholding the rule of law based on the FRRL Group report and on the European Commission's 2023 Rule of Law Report.

I have placed the defence of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law at the heart of my mandate, said Oliver Röpke, President of the European Economic and Social Committee. President Röpke called for concrete preparations for both the deepening and enlargement of the EU and the creation of a Civil Society Forum on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law: The idea is not only to have a moment for discussion, like today. Beyond the "moment" of a forum, we need to create "momentum", on the long term, in the form of a permanent structured dialogue with civil society organisations, social partners, citizens, and all other actors of civil society.

European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, stressed the importance of civil society in upholding the rule of law. He acknowledged that While some Member States have made progress in this regard, we still see regulatory constraints and difficulties for civil society organisations, for instance in access to funding or increased controls. We must protect, support and empower civil society.

The fourth edition of the Commission's Rule of Law Report was adopted in July 2023. Like the 2022 edition, the Report contains country-specific recommendations for each Member State. This year's report also assesses the progress made in implementing recommendations from the previous year, roughly two-thirds of which have been fully or partially addressed, according to the Commission.

Balázs Dénes, Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), a network of national level human rights organisations that also produces an annual Liberties Rule of Law report, considered that there was room for improvement in relation to the European rule of law mechanism: We believe that the Commission should devote more attention to the issue of civic space and the systematic nature of human rights violations. We consider the country-specific recommendations often too general and the monitoring of implementation weak and opaque. Monitoring and reporting must be more transparent and participatory.

FRRL Group Report: fundamental rights and rule of law from a civil society perspective

During the conference, the EESC FRRL Group released its report based on country visits to Greece, Finland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Sweden in 2022. To produce this report, the Group engaged with dozens of civil society representatives in these EU Member States, including employers, trade unionists, the media and legal professionals.  

The report reveals that no Member State is exempt from challenges, and identifies trends and pressing threats to fundamental rights and the rule of law in Europe. These challenges include obstacles encountered by civil society organisations in securing funding, evolving socioeconomic changes in the media sector (resulting in increased instability for media professionals), and persistent issues related to the speed of justice – all of which are evident across various European countries.

Paul Soete, President of the FRRL Group, said: What emerges from our report is that fundamental rights and freedoms generally remain well protected. However, we see a distinct gap between theory and practice, between good legislative frameworks and a less adequate implementation.

The FRRL Group report calls for stronger support for the work of civil society at national and EU levels, not just to safeguard civic space, but democracy as a whole.

Views from policy makers and experts

The Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, highlighted the crucial role played by civil society in upholding the Rule of Law, noting that it is under attack not only in the EU but worldwide: The consolidation and support of civic space is a constant request included in EP reports as a pre-condition for safeguarding the Rule of Law.

Andreas Accardo, Head of Institutional Cooperation and Networks at the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), focused the role of civic space not just as an enabler, but also an indicator for the rule of law: There are continuing challenges across our member states in the area of civic space. Our research shows that one in five human rights organisations feel tracked by surveillance activities of law enforcement in their own countries.

Ismael Paez Civico, Board Member of the European Youth Forum, pointed out that the more political rights young people have the more effective access to justice becomes. The Rule of Law Report should consult consistently with young people and represent the struggles that they face.


Civil Society Under Pressure in Europe – Insights from the Latest Rule of Law Report