EU human rights chief: ‘Civil society will push back the rise of extremism’

Michael O’Flaherty [European Parliament/ Flickr]

This article is part of our special report EU civil society at a crossroads.

The rise of extreme parties across Europe is motivating “people of good will” to speak out and get activated, the director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights told

Michael O’Flaherty is director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the EU’s centre of fundamental rights expertise.

He spoke to’s Sarantis Michalopoulos in a telephone interview ahead of the conference Empowering civil society to act and grow in Europe.

What is the current state-of-play of civil society organisations in Europe and what are the main challenges they are facing?

We have been talking about challenges in civil society and the so-called shrinking civil society space for years but we have been looking outside Europe. And we overlook the extent to which we also have problems within the EU.

The record is uneven across EU member states but we see five different types of pressure on civil society. In the first place, we have challenges thrown up by the regulatory environment, for example, when anti-terrorism law creates problems for the gathering of civil society groups like legitimate demonstrations in the streets. Secondly, we see quite serious problems with regards finance and funding and there are many problems here, the issue in Hungary is the most recent and dramatic but there are many forms of funding issues, such as removing human rights advocacy from charitable status for purposes of the taxation laws.

A third area is access to the decision-making process. Civil society groups are only effective when they have access to decision-making. We have an uneven record of transparency laws in Europe and the less transparent the public services the harder is to influence or to know what influence you are having. We also see an uneven quality of consultation process across Europe. The general concern in many countries is that civil society does not get any feedback about the impact of its interventions.

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The fourth area we are concerned about is the issue of safety. We have been reporting on attacks on civil society groups in very different contexts across Europe in recent years and the situation is worrying. It depends on what a civil society group is working on. If one works for LGBT he will probably face issues in some countries. The same for Roma issues. If you work in support of the Jewish community you can be a target of attack. The attacks can be hate speech, but they can also be hate crimes. In the context of migration, for example, we have seen attacks physically on facilities and buildings. In some places, we also see an inadequate response by the authorities to this kind of crimes.

If you are a foreign funded organisation you are a suspect organisation and this can give fuel for people to attack physically people who work for such an organisation.

The final area of pressure on civil society has to do with the weak capacity. Sometimes people think that the richest corner of the world will have the richest civil society. Simply this is not the case. Civil society groups are struggling in very many different places to survive. They are struggling because of financial problems, because of the way the money is given to them, for projects but not for core expenses. They are struggling because they don’t have the money and they cannot pay the salaries and therefore they cannot keep the good staff. Because of this lack of resources, we find many civil society groups there is inadequate attention paid to the well-being of the staff. Most of the times, the groups are dealing with the most heroine human situations, rescuing people in the Aegean for example, and this fantastic work needs to be backed up by psychological support for the workers themselves and this inadequately in place.

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According to your agency’s data, has the number of EU citizens engaging with NGOs increased or decreased in recent years?

This is something we know from particular data. We do know that there has been an increase in civil society visibility within the context of the arrival of refugees. There is no doubt about that. I visited the hotspots in Greece and in Italy on a number of occasions. I remember at the beginning of the last year when I went to the Greek hotspots, we saw hundreds even thousands of people volunteering to work on the Greek islands that had no previous civil society experience. That’s an indicator of an increased recognition of the importance of civil society for helping communities.

In addition, social media has made it much easier to organise and has created a more informal civil society network.

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The Hungarian government recently imposed strict restrictions on NGOs that receive foreign funding. Is it a crackdown on dissent?

I don’t talk about crackdowns. It’s not my business to attribute motivation for what governments do. It’s my business to analyse what they do. Our agency shares with the European Commission, the United Nations and others, a great concern about the recent NGO legislation in Hungary for multiple reasons.

Fundamentally, because it raises very important issues of international human rights and the European Union law. Regarding the international human rights law, it raises issues of the freedoms of assembly and association for example. It also limits the rights to participate in public affairs.

In terms of EU law, we worry about the negative impact of this law for honouring the four freedoms.

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In Brussels, a recent European Parliament own-initiative report called on the European Commission to reject funding for NGOs that oppose its “strategic commercial and security objectives”. Do you agree with its spirit?

Of course I cannot agree with the general spirit of this report. It’s inconsistent with international human rights standards.

It was an unhelpful contribution which was not only problematic from a legal point of view but also fails to understand the critical role that civil society plays in a healthy democracy.

Civil society does not have always to agree. Demanding some kind of homogenised agreement on economic or commercial goals or whatever else it’s not the essence of democracy.

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Do you fear more political pressure on European NGOs in the future? Not necessarily from extreme political parties but also the mainstream ones.

I am more interested in seeing how we strengthen civil society than worrying about possible future threats. There is a lot that we can do. For example, we can do a better job in monitoring the attacks on civil society. We are looking at the possibility of supporting the establishment of an observatory regarding the health of the EU civil society.

We are exploring ideas such as setting up a kind of EU fund for civil society. We want to see a stronger focus on the legal dimensions of the pressure on civil society. A healthy civil society is not only a democratic good but a legal obligation. We need to pay more attention to this dimension.

Do you believe that the rise of extreme parties across Europe will further pressure EU civil society?

I will put in another way. The rise of extreme parties is motivating people of good will to speak out and get mobilised and activated. So, I am confident about the capacity of the civil society to push back.

But that doesn’t for one minute relieve us of our duty to support civil society in every appropriate way.

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