Saturday

10th Dec 2022

Opinion

Civil society protects us and now it needs our help

  • In one way or the other, civil society is all of us. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

A thriving civil society sector is imperative for a healthy democracy. That is why laws like the one recently passed in Hungary, on foreign-funded NGOs, are so problematic.

Actions such as these suggest that civil society is a problem and not an asset. But the very opposite is true. Rather, civil society promotes public participation and ensures the accountability of governments.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

In one way or the other, civil society is all of us: it is trade unions, employers’ organisations, professional associations, churches and other faith organisations, schools, universities, NGOs, and the media.

The European Union is generous with the advice and resources it provides to civil society beyond its own borders, and rightly demands high standards from aid recipients.

But it is always easier to criticise countries far away than to address the human rights situation closer to home. And it is not just one EU member state we need to be scrutinising.

Even following remarks from UN human rights experts that the recent Hungarian legislative changes could have a “chilling effect, not only on expressions of peaceful dissent, but also on the legitimate work of NGOs and individual human rights defenders,” we must not forget that this is only one – if the most extreme – manifestation of a worrying trend across the EU.

Cause for concern

Based on data and information collected from across the EU, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has identified a number of concerns.

One is the regulatory environment, which has become more problematic for civil society organisations in many places.

Take some counter-terrorism legislation, where moves to strengthen national security can also impinge on space for civil society.

While there is no absolute right to demonstrate, there needs to be a good reason to prohibit a demonstration. And once lost to a state of emergency, it is difficult to regain civic space.

Then there is the issue of finance and funding.

The new law in Hungary requires NGOs to declare their sources of foreign funding.

At first glance, the stipulation seems quite harmless. However, the implication that finance or assistance from outside a country’s borders is suspicious, may fuel xenophobic sentiment and can also be damaging to the general public’s sense of trust in the organisations concerned.

And there are other fears surrounding the issue of finances elsewhere in the EU.

Many of our own civil society partners have voiced disquiet about moves to remove human rights advocacy from the list of charitable purposes for tax purposes.

A third area of concern is the lack of access to decision-makers and the decision-making process.

Access to information is a matter of basic human rights, not to mention good governance. But there are few examples of guidelines or regulations that concern when and how decision-makers should involve civil society organisations in law and policy-making.

Theory vs. practice

Even where rules do exist, they are not necessarily well applied in practice.

Finally, there is the level of danger involved in civil society work in many parts of the EU.

Personal safety often depends on the political popularity of the theme focused on by an organisation.

For instance, rescuing or helping migrants may expose you to criminal sanctions in some places. Advocacy for LGBTI rights can bring you into danger in others. On top of this, the state is too often failing to investigate hate crime and bring perpetrators to justice.

This may seem a long list of concerns. But we are not powerless.

First of all, we need to remember that there is strong legal protection for civil society, enshrined in human rights treaties and in EU law – a point recently made by Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission.

Legislation passed in the EU member states must always be compatible with the so-called "four freedoms", which include the free movement of capital and the freedom to provide services. So first and foremost, we are calling for respect for the law.

At the same time, we must realise that stifling civil society will have an impact on all of us. This is not just about the staff who work for NGOs or the people on whose behalf they work.

We need to raise our voices and make them heard all the way to the political leaders in our capital cities: we do not accept the threat to our civil liberties, coming from the pressure placed on civil society.

To do this, finally, we need to build partnerships.

The newly inaugurated French president, Emmanuel Macron, said that “a rise in illiberal democracies” could be witnessed all around the world.

It is clear to me that if we fail to cherish and protect civil society in the EU, a widespread illiberal democracy is just what we may end up with here, in our own corner of Europe.

Michael O’Flaherty is the Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights brings together a network of more than 500 civil society organisations, in the conviction that civil society and the protection of human rights are mutually interdependent, and that the state of civil society in the EU is an indicator of the health of our society.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Hungary's NGOs to fight crackdown law

Despite warnings from the UN, the EU and international rights organisations, Hungary's parliament passed a law that is seen as targeting NGOs partly funded by Hungarian-US billionaire George Soros.

Feature

Civil society steps in to fight rising obesity

By 2030, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of Europeans will be obese. With a lack of public policies and coherent strategies, civil society is often the one trying to find a solution.

'A Europe that protects': what does that actually mean?

Current challenges to the rule of law, an independent civil society, and the equal treatment of minorities are just as much in need of tackling as are the challenges of globalisation, migration, and digitalisation.

Rights NGOs face fresh threats in EU

While ongoing crackdowns in Poland and Hungary have put the spotlight on rights groups, NGOs are now under new political and financial pressure across the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency said.

No, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not ready for the EU

The European Commission has asked the member states' leaders assembling in Brussels next week for the customary end-of-year European Council to approve EU candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Doing so would be a mistake.

The military-industrial complex cashing-in on the Ukraine war

From the outset, arms manufacturers eyed this war as a profitable business opportunity. Structural changes took place across the EU, not only to fast-track arms to Ukraine, but also to make more public finance available to the highly-lucrative arms industry.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. EU Commission silent on Greek spyware sale to Madagascar
  2. A plea to the EU from inside Tehran's Evin jail
  3. EU lets Croatia into Schengen, keeps Bulgaria and Romania out
  4. Energy crisis costs thousands of EU jobs, but industrial output stable
  5. Illegal pushbacks happening daily in Croatia, says NGO
  6. No, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not ready for the EU
  7. EU takes legal action against China over Lithuania
  8. EU Commission shoring up children's rights of same-sex parents

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us