Civil Society Days 2023 open with a call to shore up civic space in the EU against internal and external threats

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The European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC) Civil Society Days kicked off today with two sessions discussing how best to protect civic space in the EU against forces eating away at it, be it national governments or foreign powers.

EESC President Christa Schweng said that: civil society organisations have come under increasing pressure in recent years. Many struggle to survive and face funding problems. The EESC has repeatedly drawn attention to these highly alarming issues. That's why we were crystal clear in our feedback on the Commission’s European Democracy Action Plan. We have called on the Commission to establish a dedicated pillar for civil society and have also relayed, through the Liaison Group with European civil society organisations and networks, civil society's demand for a European Civil Society Strategy.

Dubravka Šuica, European Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, conceded that we cannot take democracy for granted. We cannot take our civil society for granted. We have seen the great work of civil society organisations across the European Union, and also in Ukraine, showing great courage.” She stressed the Commission's action in response to the Conference on the Future of Europe, with 80% of legislative initiatives this year being a direct result of citizens' proposals at the Conference. She therefore thanked civil society organisations for their support of the Conference on the Future of Europe, adding that "we took your commitment seriously. We took the proposals of the Conference seriously.

In an inaugural debate, keynote speaker Colin Crouch, professor emeritus at Warwick University, pinpointed a key issue that lay at the heart of the event: how to reconcile the nature of civil society engagement, which is at its best in short-lived crises, with the need for structure to sustain action over time – something which was at the forefront of the minds of the organisations supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion. "How do you continue to inject those formal structures with the moral commitment, the passion and the emotion that has to be there? How do you devise structures which can contain these two potentially antagonistic forces that have to realise they need each other? That, I suppose, is your main purpose in this conference", prof. Crouch concluded.

MEP Sergey Lagodinsky carried on the discussion focusing on a resolution he initiated at the European Parliament calling on the Commission to provide not just an open space where civil society can operate across borders, but also a safe space. This would require a set of minimum standards for how governments can deal with NGOs and non-profit organisations, so that Mr Orban and others cannot just deal with their NGOs as if they were feudal kings and can do whatever they want within their borders.

Courteney Mukoyi, a Zimbabwean award-winning lawyer and innovator, shared his own personal trauma and the lessons he had drawn from the fallout of the 2008 election, when Robert Mugabe refused to leave power following defeat. He said solidarity was key "because when something happens in Ukraine it is the concern of all Europeans and tomorrow it could happen to you" and " an injustice in France is an injustice across all Europe". Another important thing was anticipating the rainy days of democracy, so to speak: outside times of crisis, we should think 'was is the worst that could happen?' and try to design systems that can protect NGOs and other civil society organisations from the worst.

Ukrainian activist Marta Barandiy brought the testimony of a civil society that is actually stronger than democracy in the country, putting up resistance against a much more powerful aggressor: We will clean the Ukrainian soil from Russian occupants but also from corrupt Ukrainian people in power as well as collaborators. But for that we all need to be united: Ukrainian civil society and European civil society. When we speak as one, our voice cannot be distorted and truth cannot be stolen from us, she concluded.

Civil Society Days 2023 will continue until Friday 3 March with a variety of workshops and plenary sessions.

Over 500 participants have registered for this event, which is taking place fully in person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Read the full programme.

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