Dark times for civil society in Europe? And why should we have to worry about it?

 The situation in many European countries is not in favor of a vibrant and active civil society. Many reports, including the report prepared by the SLOGA platform, show that civil society in the EU is under threat. In Slovenia, however, the situation is not alarming yet, but we certainly detect trends that weaken democracy and disrespect human rights. It is necessary to strengthen civil society, to give it the right place and value, as it promotes a higher level of participation, solidarity, fairness and more control over power and the implementation of policies, which is for the general good.

In a recent report, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) notes that civil society in the EU is under threat. Given the key role it plays in democratic processes and the promotion of human rights, decision makers must ensure that the work of civil society is not compromised by political and legal changes and the reduction of resources. The agency notes in the report that activists are exposed to threats, physical and verbal attacks and blaming. There are also legal changes that have a negative impact on civil society, such as restrictions on freedom of assembly, which are often included in counter-terrorism legislation. Civil society is also facing a shrinking budgetary resources and growing difficulties in obtaining financial support. Last but not least, it is not well involved in the drafting of legislation and policy.

Member States must comply with regulations, including international standards that recommend the involvement of civil society in political decision-making. It is also important to ensure that new or revised regulations and policies do not make it more difficult for civil society to work. Their funding must also be protected. In addition, dialogue between civil society and the EU should be strengthened so that its concerns are heard and addressed. Ways to collect comparable and reliable data on the challenges of civil society, such as threats, bullying and attacks, are necessary. Some recommendations and promising practices to address these challenges are also reported by the FRA report.

CONCORD, the European Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in the field of international development cooperation, has resolutely stepped in to defend civil society in its last paper. “There are many different expressions of civil society, with multiple types of actors, roles and mandates. Forming organisations is both a right and a means of making people’s participation and commitment to change effective and sustainable. ” Civil society organisations can play facilitating roles by amplifying the voices of people facing marginalization and exclusion, by defending and asserting rights, and by demanding transparency and accountability.

Restrictions on the space of civil society are in many countries linked to anti-democratic development at a global level that questions the universality of human rights. The causes of these experiments are decision makers who want to strengthen their power, while avoiding accountability to people. The democratic space is also threatened in European countries (as is evident from the CIVICUS report) due to similar non-democratic, populist and nationalist trends. Closure of the civil society has serious negative effects on inclusive and sustainable development.

What kind of working conditions are encountered by civil society organizations in Poland and Hungary could be heard at a conference of the content networks of Slovenia on codecision, where representatives of two NGOs reported about the indifference, dedication to the fate of the inhabitants of both countries. Due to the division of the media and, consequently, the company into two parts in Poland, there is no overall debate on the pressing challenges. There is less and less active citizens, as people do not see the importance of expressing their will, but they increasingly believe the image of civil society organizations exposed by both governments. Citizens give support to political parties whose political goals are not only contrary to the principles of participatory democracy but also in contravention of the principle of the rule of law of the EU. It seems that citizens are sometimes willing to give up some basic values ​​and human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the media, civil society or an independent judiciary. These trends seriously undermine European principles.

Given the lack of active citizenship and the governments that are in favour of the passive electoral body, we can not in any way expect co-decision making. But we forget that participatory democracy is an integral part of the European social model. The complementarity between representative and participatory democracy is defined by the Treaty of Lisbon, which grants citizens, among other things, the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union, and determines that decisions are taken as openly and as closely as possible with citizens. Nevertheless, practice shows a different picture. Differences in the understanding and implementation of participatory democracy take place between different levels of decision-making, from local to international as well as between different European Union countries. On the one hand, there are new and emerging examples of good codecision practices, from participatory budgets to various partnerships between civil society and administrations at the local and national levels in the preparation and implementation of policies. On the other hand, we are also witnessing various cases of moving away from citizens’ decision-making, from covert trade agreements to the preparation of custom-made rules for individual companies, and on tough pressures on civil society.

The phenomenon of illiberal democracies diminishes the concept of democracy only to the multiparty system, and at the same time attempts to suppress or institutionally marginalize all the other basic elements necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic pluralistic society. In this sense, political leaders of the so-called illiberal democracies directly attack human rights, especially those related to the freedom of assembly, association and expression. Critical civil society organizations, independent media and independent judiciary and other institutions responsible for the protection of human rights and the functioning of democracy are increasingly exposed to these kind of pressures. This phenomenon was known outside the EU, but has also spread within the European borders over the last few years.

In Slovenia, we can not talk about the radical shrinking of the civil society space at the moment, at least not in the sense that the state of the hotel would very restrict and systematically limit or influence the work of civil society. But we are by no means immune to these pressures. As we see in the Report on the Aliberal Trends in Democracy in 2017, which was created as part of the project More Democracy for More Europe, we have discovered practices that can be understood as early warning signs for transforming the liberal into an orbial democracy. The development platforms from Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Latvia have also warned of the worrying situation in countries through a successful pan-European campaign, saying that Europe must change and adopt more democracy and provide greater protection for all human rights values; from civil and political to social and economic rights. We want to live in societies where liberal rights do not burden socioeconomic rights and vice versa.

The same conclusions were reached at the Conference on the Reduction of Civil Society Space, organized by Focus, Umanotera and Ecologists Without Borders. They warned that by limiting or even losing an active civil society we lose everyone, and at the same time, democracy in our country is under question. The purpose of this consultation was so simple to see whether Slovenia would go along the route of Hungary and many other countries that equate civil society organizations and civil initiatives with foreign spies and national enemies, or take the example of Scandinavian countries where civil society is making an important contribution to finding good solutions for society and the environment.

Many events and reports are clear: the theme of the shrinking space for civil society needs to be placed under the headlights and kept there until the significance and role of civil society is strengthened. A strong civil society encourages a higher level of participation, more solidarity and equity, lending the voice to the weaker and providing more environmental and social responsibility to those who do not have it and allowing more control over authority and policy implementation.

Patricija Virtič, SLOGA

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