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A free and strong civil society for a vibrant democracy

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Speech at the 2018 Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights [Check against delivery]

Ladies and gentlemen, 

Thank you for these interesting perspectives. 

To these, I will contribute insights from the 'House of civil society', the European Economic and Social Committee.

I see we all agree that Civil Society Organisations have a key role to play in our democracies, fostering participation, enhancing cohesion, providing services, enabling informed decision-making and raising the voice of civil society.

However, a study delivered by us at the beginning of this year demonstrates that CSOs face a shrinking space for their activities, and that this development can be projected to continue to the year 2030. 

NGO laws are popping up in some countries placing undue administrative burdens and financial restrictions on CSOs.

These aim at weakening the CSOs that play a pivotal role in monitoring government failures or transgressions or develop critical voices. 

We see so-called 'GONGO's (Government led NGOs) being promoted.

Extremism and populism are gaining traction all over Europe, and I regret to say, these policies are finding their outlet through the government in some countries, or by actors that are support parties to the government in others. 

The root causes lie the many profound transformations that our societies are currently facing:

  • The economic transformation with the fourth industrial revolution, 
  • the energy and ecological transformation, 
  • deep social transformation, 
  • democratic and participatory transformation 
  • transitions in international relations 

all have profound impacts on our societies.

This in turn impacts CSOs.

For example, demographic changes influence the kind of CSOs needed. An aging population also impacts the age of volunteers and staff, with consequences for example on digital competency.

The economic crisis has left its marks, decreasing public funding and obliging CSOs to adapt financial models towards service-based business models. This puts them in competition with commercial providers. 

And makes it hard for advocacy based CSOs to fund their work.

The digital revolution also impacts the CSO sector. 

Positively, as it enhances advocacy reach.

Negatively, however, because digital possibilities seemingly enable decision-makers to reach citizens directly, conveniently by-passing CSOs.

What can be done to counteract shrinking civic space? And how can we do this?

We must promote the culture of participation in all spheres of life to safeguard our democracies.

This means supporting civic education, and helping CSOs providing this educational dimension. 

This implies encouraging creative education and the arts, which are shown to promote critical thinking and enhance participation.

This also means that we need to support CSOs financially to secure more independence. The EESC has already adopted two opinions calling for the EU to find ways to ensure more and better funding of civil society organisations.

On the institutional side, we must continue to safeguard and monitor civic space. The EESC has set up a group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law with this purpose in mind. 

Coming to a close, I always insist on a holistic perspective. Economic, social, demographic, environmental and cultural trends are should be considered together. 

Also, let's not forget to highlight the diversity of civil society representatives, strong human rights organisations, but also employers' and workers' organisations, organisations engaging in social solidarity, poverty alleviation, culture and many others. 

We must defend this civil society ecosystem in order to ensure a sustainable European project.