Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

Rights NGOs face fresh threats in EU

  • Civil rights groups - particularly LGBT ones - face threats in the EU (Photo: Bob Lefevere)

Counterterrorism, anti-moneylaundering measures, shrinking budgets and threats curtail the work of civil rights' groups in the EU, a new report published on Thursday (18 January) by the EU's Vienna-based Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has found.

Civil society as a whole – a key pillar of democracy – is under threat in many parts of the EU, it concludes.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • The Vienna-based Fundamental Rights Agency focuses on human rights and makes recommendations to both the EU and member states to protect human rights when implementing EU law. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"A thriving democracy needs a healthy civil society. Unfortunately, the EU's own civil society is facing a pattern of threats and pressures in many parts of the EU," FRA director Michael O'Flaherty said, adding that addressing this "unacceptable situation should be a high priority" for the EU and member states.

The FRA focuses on human rights and makes recommendations to both the EU and member states to protect human rights when implementing EU law.

While there is a clear effort to crackdown on NGOs in Hungary and Poland, experts say that rights groups face threats across the bloc.

In a number of countries counterterrorism measures had a direct or indirect effect on NGOs. Freedom of assembly for instance was reduced in countries such as France and Spain.

Anti-moneylaundering measures also had an impact: in the UK over 300 UK-based charities' bank accounts were frozen at least temporarily because of strict implementation of the new rules.

The agency wants EU member states to make sure that new measures do not have negative side-effects on NGOs.

Attacks, physical abuse, threats and smear campaigns against NGOs have become the new norm, researchers say. "They feel it's part of their job now," an official familiar with the issue said.

The attacks typically come from political groups, for instance from people unhappy with groups helping refugees. LGBTI rights, womens' rights and the rights of refugees tend to be the most sensitive subjects, receiving the brunt of threats.

However, it is difficult to assess the scope of the threat, because there are no figures on this as authorities do not register if a physical abuse was a direct attack against a civil group. The agency plans a report specifically on that in the autumn.

In some cases, civil groups fear state surveillance, the report notes. In July 2015, Amnesty International reported that "UK government agencies had spied on the organisation by intercepting, accessing and storing its communications".

Short on money

The lack of sustainable long-term financing hampers the effectiveness of the civil groups' work. Most funds are only available through short-term projects that do not cover advocacy and awareness-raising.

Shrinking national budgets and increasing administrative burdens also complicate the NGOs' work.

The agency recommends setting up funds for long-term financing and that the administrative burdens should be proportionate and reasonable. The free movement of capital – something that has come under threat in Hungary and the UK – is also key in providing funding.

Recently, several NGOs have called for the establishment of a specific EU fund for rights groups. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) also urged such a move last autumn.

Another issue highlighted by the report is that governments across the EU are not keen to consult with civil organisations when working on new legislation. Even if governments are open for consultation, they give very little time – in extreme cases only a few hours – for organisations to comment on bills.

The report was compiled after NGOs said they are coming under increasing political pressure by changing laws and some have endured physical attacks.

While the EU is often visible at helping civil society outside of the bloc, there have been few measures to protect or even to assess the situation of civil groups within the EU.

The Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), an NGO promoting the civil liberties in the EU, said in a statement that with the FRA's report it could be harder for "politicians in Brussels to ignore" the increasing threat to NGOs.

The organisation notes that the EU commission and European Parliament have been "largely uninterested in pleas" from activists to protect rights groups.

The centre-right European People's Party has been pushing to restrict EU funds for NGOs.

Hungary to tax NGOs that 'help' migration

Ahead of elections in April, Hungary's government swings into campaign mode by proposing a new set of rules to stop illegal migration and NGOs that assist in it.

MEPs to discuss civil liberties in Hungary

The EP's civil liberties committee is to discuss Hungarian PM Orban's recent flirtation with reintroducing the death penalty, and a controversial Hungarian survey on immigration.

News in Brief

  1. EU warns Turkey as 'Gezi Park' trials begin
  2. EU universities to share students, curricula
  3. Migrant rescue ship loses Human Rights Court appeal
  4. Denmark completes social democrat sweep of Nordics
  5. Johnson offers 'do or die' pledge on Brexit
  6. Weber indirectly attacks Macron in newspaper op-ed
  7. EU to sign free trade deal with Vietnam
  8. EU funding of air traffic control 'largely unnecessary'

Stalling on VAT reform costing billions, says Commission

German media outlet Correctiv, along with other newsrooms, have revealed how criminals annually cheat EU states out of billions in VAT fraud. The EU Commission says solutions exist - but member states refuse to budge on tax unanimity.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  4. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  6. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  7. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  8. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  9. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate

Latest News

  1. EU moves to end car-testing 'confidentiality clause'
  2. EU parliament gives extra time for leaders on top jobs
  3. Europe's rights watchdog lifts Russia sanctions
  4. EU-Vietnam trade deal a bad day for workers' rights
  5. EU 'special envoy' going to US plan for Palestine
  6. Polish judicial reforms broke EU law, court says
  7. EU study: no evidence of 'East vs West' food discrimination
  8. Russia tried to stir up Irish troubles, US think tank says

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  3. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  6. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  11. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  12. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us