This article is part of our special report EU civil society at a crossroads.
At a time when civil society is being challenged by restrictive policies at national level, the EU must do its part to defend civic space, writes Kélig Puyet.
Kélig Puyet is the director of Social Platform, the largest civil society alliance fighting for social justice and participatory democracy.
Civil society organisations work for and with different groups of people in Europe, in particular, those in the most vulnerable situations whose voices are rarely heard. Civil society defends people’s rights, brings their needs directly from the ground to the forefront in decision-making processes, and empowers them to have more control over their lives.
In recent years there have been a number of laws introduced in European Union member states which have, intentionally or not, impacted our ability to carry out our activities and act as watchdogs. Perhaps the best known recent example is the passing of a law in Hungary branding organisations that receive €24,000 or more in funding from non-national sources as ‘foreign-funded’. But restrictive rules have been rolled-out in Western Europe too, as we heard from participants in our workshop on ‘Empowering civil society to act and grow in Europe’ as part of the European Economic and Social Committee’s Civil Society Days 2017.
Growing social inequality has fuelled deterioration of trust in our democracies. Enabling and strengthening civil society organisations can be part of the solution. To send a strong signal to the member states, Social Platform believes there are a number of principles that should be recognised and reinforced at EU level.
First, civil society organisations must have the right to be consulted in decision-making. This sounds basic, but trends in EU member states mean that we cannot assume this right is a given. In countries where the right to participation is respected, it is often applied in a limited way; while a civil society organisation may be consulted on a specific piece of legislation being introduced it is the government that sets the agenda, with no opportunity for us to put forward areas we would like to consult on and share expertise. Better partnership between civil society and governments should be fostered to encourage a safe space where topics of interest to all actors can be discussed.
Second, there is a need for transparent and open decision-making processes. Perhaps the best example of why this is needed is the 2011 “cash-for-amendments” scandal in the European Parliament, a sting by undercover reporters which saw three politicians accept money in exchange for tabling amendments to legislation. Episodes like this could be prevented through the introduction of a ‘legislative footprint’ that would provide exhaustive information about whom and what has influenced a certain piece of legislation or policy, and how and when this influence occurred, thus avoiding conflicts of interest.
Transparency is key but there should be no system in place to restrict the representation of different interests in decision-making processes. Take, for example, Austria, where there is a proposal for civil society organisations to have to pay an annual fee in order to lobby decision-makers.
Third, there should be protective regulatory and financial frameworks for civil society organisations. Developments in several EU member states show a worrying trend towards more short-term project-based funding for non-governmental organisations, instead of long-term support for our core work. Complicated and difficult procedures for applications and reporting are also burdensome barriers for many small NGOs to overcome, which often prevent them from focusing on their core business and prioritising impact delivery. Social NGOs face increasing difficulties in providing much-needed services with limited financial resources and little or no capacity to act as advocates. Civil society organisations link decision-makers with citizens and communities, and it is through ambitious funding partnership initiatives that the EU’s social objectives can reach people in different member states.
Fourth, the EU should recognise civil society as an important stakeholder by moving away from its informal, piecemeal approach to a structured civil dialogue. The Treaty on the European Union obliges EU institutions to engage in a dialogue with civil society. However, in practice, fruitful exchanges with EU institutions far too often depend upon the goodwill and individual engagement of decision-makers and civil servants. An inter-institutional agreement on civil dialogue would set out common guidelines and practices when it comes to a partnership with civil society organisations. The guidelines would also set mandatory requirements to ensure the balanced composition and transparency of appointments in EU advisory and stakeholder groups between representatives of industry and businesses, social partners, governments, civil society organisations and independent experts.
By abiding by these four principles on participation, transparency, regulatory and financial frameworks, and formal recognition of civil dialogue, the EU would send a clear signal to member states that civil society is a key actor in decision-making that must not be silenced. Until then, civil society must not rest on its laurels. It is our duty to ensure that our democratic systems work for – and with – the people.