Wednesday

29th Jun 2022

Opinion

Europe Day: Reminder EU needs to care for democracy watchdogs

  • In Slovenia, one of the Friday cycling protests' figureheads was ordered by the state attorney to pay more than €50,000 in fines, allegedly to cover the costs of policing the anti-government protests (Photo: Peter Teffer)
Listen to article

Europe Day (Monday, 9 May) is an occasion to remind ourselves that what unites us is greater than what divides us. The EU gives people a way to come together across national, cultural and religious differences to pursue values we all share, like democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.

Populist authoritarians do their best to divide us based on where we're from, who we love, or who we pray to.

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

But in reality, most of us want the same things, like leaders who do what's best for their people and governments that give all of us the same opportunities. On Europe Day we should remember civil society organisations which, along with journalists and other watchdogs, work to bring these values to life and keep our societies free and fair.

Increasingly, these keepers of democracy are under attack, and not just from the usual authoritarian suspects.

Government-orchestrated smear campaigns, funding restrictions and unjust constraints on their ability to perform their work threaten their existence — and, in turn, threaten our rights and democracy.

Even in traditionally strong democracies, civil society organisations (CSOs) are under pressure.

In France, a new law allows the government to close or deny public funding to organisations whose work it considers not in line with "national values". The latter has been left undefined, perhaps intentionally. The recent dissolution of two groups, the Collective against Islamophobia in France and Coordination against Racism and Islamophobia, shows the government will use this power.

The governments of Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, and Slovenia have all recently made life harder for CSOs.

In Germany, for example, centre-right politicians, under pressure from corporate lobbyists, have exploited outdated legislation to have tax courts strip CSOs promoting causes that interfere with their profits, like environmental protection, of their tax exempt status.

Things are considerably worse in countries that are pursuing a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy.

After the Court of Justice ruled Hungary's anti-NGO law broke EU law, the government simply replaced it with another problematic law. The Polish government, which has in the past orchestrated smear campaigns against CSOs promoting equality for LGBTIQ persons and access to abortion, now harasses organisations assisting people attempting to flee to Poland from Belarus.

Wearing down activists with bogus lawsuits

As well as smear campaigns and restrictive laws, some politicians and corporations use bogus lawsuits to stop CSOs and journalists from exposing unethical and illegal activity.

These are known as SLAPPs: strategic lawsuits against public participation. Wrongdoers launch SLAPPs with no intention to win. Rather, they use their resources to drag watchdogs through drawn-out court battles that drain the finances and resistance of activists and journalists.

The end goal is to deter CSOs and the media from exposing unethical or illegal activity or mobilising the public.

For example, in March 2022, Greenpeace Spain and other groups were sued for defamation by agribusiness Valle de Odieta, after exposing water and soil pollution from a giant industrial cow farm owned by the company.

In Slovenia, one of the Friday cycling protests' figureheads was ordered by the state attorney to pay more than €50,000 in fines, allegedly to cover the costs of policing the anti-government protests.

The European Commission has recognised that SLAPPs are a problem for democracy. Last month, it launched a proposal for legislation to tackle SLAPPs. It also stepped up support for CSOs through increased funding opportunities (under the new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme), and promised to look into the state of civic space in a forthcoming report expected at the end of this year.

In other areas, too, there are reasons to be hopeful for the future of democracy. The EU commission has finally used new powers to stop EU funds flowing to Hungary. The government has used EU money to line the pockets of business allies who help keep it in power.

And election results in France and Slovenia show that voters are resistant to the misinformation and division peddled by the far-right in those countries.

But despite these reasons for hope, this Europe Day should remind us that the values we share can only thrive when they are nurtured, and that the EU needs to better protect those who tend to our democracies.

Helping to grow public support for CSOs' efforts, protecting activists from attacks, securing an enabling framework for them to do their work, and easing access to funding should be priorities if the EU is serious about making democracy work for all of us.

Author bio

Israel Butler is head of advocacy at Civil Liberties Union For Europe, where Linda Ravo is senior advocacy consultant.

Disclaimer

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

On World Press Freedom Day, new threats to journalists surge

World Press Freedom Day: two sinister and distinct trends in harassment against reporters have emerged: the onslaught of online abuse targeting — in particular — women journalists, and the weaponisation of laws against media practitioners.

Livestream

Unhack Democracy Conference

Elections are the bedrock of democracy. Yet threats to electoral integrity extend far beyond the ballot box, from political financing to state capture of democratic institutions and media to disinformation.

The euro — who's next?

Bulgaria's target date for joining the eurozone, 1 January 2024, seems elusive. The collapse of Kiril Petkov's government, likely fresh elections, with populists trying to score cheap points against the 'diktat of the eurocrats', might well delay accession.

Column

China's support for Russia challenges Europe's Peace Order

China's soft support to Russia is deeply troubling for Europe. Here is the EU's biggest trading partner signalling that it is on the side of Russia, its aggression, and its challenge to the post-war international order.

Sturgeon's 2023 'referendum' gamble for Scotland

The independence campaign launch featured a new Scottish government report, comparing the UK's economic and social record with those of other European states — and arguing, unsurprisingly, that Scotland should be independent as a result.

News in Brief

  1. New president for European Committee of the Regions
  2. Gas flows from Spain to Morocco, after Western Sahara row
  3. BioNTech, Pfizer test 'universal' coronavirus vaccine
  4. UK sanctions second-richest Russian businessman
  5. Hungary permits emergency supervision of energy firms
  6. Bulgaria expels 70 alleged Russian spies
  7. EU Commission told to improve CAP data analytics
  8. Scotland pushes for second independence vote in 2023

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  2. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  4. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBHow price increases affect construction workers
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic think tank examines influence of tech giants

Latest News

  1. Nato expands and reinforces on Russian flank
  2. EU Commission says it cannot find messages with Pfizer CEO
  3. EU ministers sign off on climate laws amid German infighting
  4. EU presidency still looking for asylum relocation pledges
  5. Finland and Sweden to join Nato, as Erdoğan drops veto
  6. The euro — who's next?
  7. One rubicon after another
  8. Green crime-fighting boss urgently required, key MEP says

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us