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1st Jun 2020

EU keen to strengthen NGOs, lacks money

  • NGOs have been particulary under pressure in Hungary and Poland (Photo: Iga Lubczanska)

The European Commission plans to prop up support for NGOs protecting European values in the next long-term EU budget in an effort to strengthen civil society, which has faced threats in several member states.

The commission unveiled its plans for a new Justice, Rights and Values Fund for the 2021-2027 budget on Wednesday (30 May), which bundles together several existing programmes, and contains roughly the same amount of money available in the current budget for the same purposes.

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"At a time where we are confronted with extremism, radicalism and societal divisions, it is even more important to stand up for our common EU values," commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters.

For €642m, under the "rights and values programme", the commission plans to support "protecting and promoting rights and values as enshrined in the EU treaties, including by supporting civil society organisations, in order to sustain open, democratic and inclusive societies."

The other leg of the fund, €305m, would support access to legal service, help with costs and translations, or fund training of judges.

By creating a new chapter for "European values" the EU executive's goal is to simplify the programmes, but also to send a political message: the challenges NGOs face in Europe need to be addressed.

"Non-governmental organisations have a huge potential to promote European values, they operate close to the citizens," an EU official said.

The move comes a day after the government of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban submitted a bill to parliament nicknamed "Stop Soros" threatening jail term for NGOs dealing with migration.

An earlier NGO law curbing the rights of civil groups by Orban's government has been referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) by the commission for breaking EU rules.

Polish NGOs also fear drying up of resources, as last year the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government set up an new agency under government control to hand out funding.

Not ambitious

Under the proposed fund, the commission hopes to support organisations that raise awareness of rights and values, of European culture and history and promote active participation in democracy.

However, the commission said the money will not only be targeted at NGOs, but could be directed to government authorities, public administrations, judicial networks or universities.

Critics say that will limit the funds non-governmental organisations will be able to get.

The EU executive will, for now, also do little to address the daily funding challenges for NGOs.

The money will be mainly made available through projects, and so-called "operating grants" for daily expenditures will continue to be available for large umbrella organisations and not to individual NGOs.

recent report from the EU's own Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) notes that one of the biggest problem for European civil groups is to find sustainable long-term financing as most rely on short-term projects.

"The preference seems to be given to supporting transnational cooperation rather than activities in local constituencies. This ignores the fact that many challenges to European values have local origins and are best dealt with on local level," MEP Michal Boni told Euobserver.

The politician from the Polish opposition Civil Platform (PO) was in charge of a European Parliament report calling for a "values instrument" in the new budget supporting civil society in Europe.

Boni said the commission's proposal falls short of expectations.

"Our goal was to set up a new robust instrument to support local NGOs which foster democracy, rule of law and human rights," he said.

Boni added the commission plans to allocate less resources to a much wider scope of activities than the EP proposal, such as violence against women and children.

"The importance of these other themes notwithstanding, it is likely there will be very little resources left for civil society organisations struggling to protect and promote democracy and rule of law. It is certainly much less than the EU has been spending on promoting these values beyond its borders, which is hard to justify given the many challenges to democracy within the EU," Boni added. 

He also criticised the commission for not cutting red tape, and simplifying access to EU funds for civil groups.

A Berlin-based network of national civil liberties NGOs said the commission's plans were too little, too late.

"From the information available, it looks like NGOs may end up with a slightly bigger slice of the funding pie compared to the funding programmes that exist now. But given the scale of the threat posed by the rise of authoritarianism, this is not the lifeline that NGOs fighting for rights, democracy and the rule of law need," Israel Butler, is the head of advocacy at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe told EUobserver. 


"The budget is too low, the programme won't fund the right kinds of activities, the topics it covers will be too narrow, and it will still be too difficult for grassroots NGOs to access funding. This the equivalent of sending a chain smoker to run a marathon on nothing but a pair of flip-flops and a half-eaten sandwich," Butler added. 

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