Sunday

11th Apr 2021

Opinion

Funding for European values needs radical changes

  • Supporters of Hungarian NGOs protest against the Budapest government's actions against civil society groups (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

The European Commission has unveiled two new tools to frustrate aspiring authoritarians in the EU.

The first would allow the commission to block EU funds to governments that bring independent courts under political control.

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The commission has packaged this proposal as a technical precaution, as previously suggested by the NGO, Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

According to this approach, called 'conditionality', independent courts would just be considered part and parcel of the safety measures that governments must have in place to check that EU money is spent legally.

Although the commission arguably already has these powers, it is reluctant to use them because they are not expressly spelled out in current legislation.

The commission has announced a second tool to be fleshed out at the end of May: a funding programme on "Justice, Rights and Values", to strengthen fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law in the EU.

This comes in response to a resolution, adopted by a resounding majority in the European Parliament in April, calling for the commission to create a "European Values Instrument", also an idea elaborated by Liberties.

In the resolution, MEPs called for a sizeable injection of EU cash to support rights and democracy groups in the EU and a substantial rethink of how the EU distributes money to these organisations.

But the extent of the commission's ambitions appears rather more modest. It seems likely to pull together already existing funding programmes and tweak the rules to make it moderately easier for such organisations to apply for grants.

This is not the lifeline that civil liberties groups need if they are to prevent Europe's rights-respecting democracies from morphing into elected autocracies over the next decade.

Save democracy

To help save democracy, the commission will need to depart from current thinking in four ways.

First, the amount of funding must be substantial. Not only are governments attacking human rights standards more than before in the EU, but many governments are actively draining activists' resources with spurious administrative burdens or simply cutting and blocking funding.

There is more to do and less to do it with.

Currently, rights groups in the EU are mostly reliant on support from the Norwegian government and philanthropic foundations, but this cannot meet demand.

The European Parliament has recommended that the EU at least support rights groups inside the EU as much as it supports them outside the EU (currently around €2bn over seven years).

Second, the new fund must be easily accessible to local, grassroots organisations working at national level.

At the moment EU rules (the Financial Regulation) are so strict that small, new or volunteer-heavy organisations simply do not meet the eligibility requirements to apply for grants, which ask applicants to show sizeable annual turnovers.

When organisations are eligible, they are forced to find other donors to co-fund grants and cover certain costs like overheads themselves. But it is often impossible to find other donors willing to chip in for these costs.

And then the reporting requirements to account for how the grants are spent are extremely heavy. How will the EU be judged for allowing rights and democracy to whither because of its own over-eager bureaucratic constraints?

Third, the new fund needs to pay for the kinds of things that rights groups have to do to keep democracy functioning properly.

That means money for monitoring whether governments are complying with rights standards, money for lobbying and litigation, and money to help organisations educate the public about their rights and mobilise them when these are in danger.

Current EU funding programmes do not cover these kinds of activities.

Fourth, the new fund needs to support organisations to promote and protect rights, democracy and the rule of law as a whole.

At the moment, EU money only goes towards work that helps to implement specific pieces of EU law, like rules on data protection and non-discrimination.

But the threat Europe faces is much deeper than challenges to specific pieces of EU law – it is to the values on which the EU is based, and that is where the money needs to go.

Centrist parties need to act

Rights groups are often critical of governments, so one might question whether the council of member states can be persuaded to support a new fund.

There are times when any government might wish the press was less free, judges less independent and civil society, less vocal.

But the long-term consequences of weakening these pillars of democracy is the rise and entrenchment of populist authoritarianism.

Human rights were created to prevent authoritarians controlling their populations through propaganda, silencing political opponents and victimising minorities.

If centrist parties of any colour want power to remain with the political mainstream, they have to accept the checks and balances that keep it there and that includes strong, healthy well-funded rights groups.

Israel Butler is head of advocacy at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, an NGO promoting the civil liberties in the EU.

Disclaimer

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

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