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8th May 2021

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.

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  • 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.

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