Time to raise awareness of €1.5bn EU equality and rights programme, says leading MEP

March for Women in London ahead of International Women's Day [EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN]

Last month, European lawmakers proclaimed the EU’s Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programmes as the largest ever amount of EU funding dedicated to promoting the bloc’s values such as democracy and fundamental rights.

It sounds very ambitious but comes with plenty of questions. How a programme covering such a wide range of political and social problems ensure that the money is spent as it was intended.

Alice Bah Kuhnke, the Swedish Green MEP who piloted the legislation through the European Parliament, told EURACTIV that the programme is clearly defined to support the fight against all forms of violence, and create opportunities for engagement and democratic participation.

“The fight against racism in all its forms will be funded,” Bah Kuhnke said. The funds, she added, have been earmarked for objectives tackling gender-based violence.

The CERV Programme will be backed with €1.55 billion and available to civil society organisations on the European, national and local level, as well as equality bodies, municipalities and other stakeholders.

“A record amount of funding will be made available to the civil society sector, which plays a crucial role in safeguarding our EU common values,” said Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice.

The European Commission announced on 21 April that organisations will be able to apply for funding already this spring and summer, under the four “pillars” of the Rights and Values program, through seven different calls for proposals for 2021.

Calls for proposals will support civil society action ranging from fighting racism and gender-based violence to promoting equality, the rule of law and citizens’ participation in democracy.

The programme’s budget is twice the size of the €640 million heading originally proposed by the Commission.

“We have made sure that civil society organisations have more finance than ever before,” said Bah Kuhnke.

With the basis of the programme having been agreed, a meeting on 25 May will seek to reach agreement on the nuts and bolts of how applications will work.

“It is important that we as progressive politicians ensure that our Union is what we are supposed to be,” stressed Bah Kuhnke.

The Green lawmaker is also adamant that the cash will start to get rolled out this year, pointing to several programmes on gender-based violence that will receive funding in the coming weeks.

“We had quite a big fight in the negotiations on the money getting to civil society this year,” she says, adding that “it is important for the European Parliament that the money gets rolled out now.”

So how will organisations go about getting the cash?

Kuhnke explained that NGOs will have the option to apply straight from Brussels or from national authorities. Many civil society organisations have already been in touch, she adds.

There are also concerns that in some European countries where governments have been accused of undermining the bloc’s fundamental values in recent years, funding could be obtained by campaign groups pursuing values that counter the EU’s.

Others have expressed fears about what could happen if, for example, LGBTI or women’s rights groups in countries with less sympathetic governments find themselves shut out of funding.

“This was exactly in my mind, and the European Parliament was well aware of this problem,” says Bah Kuhnke. “We have done our best to make sure that NGOs in those countries are able to access funds, directly in a more simplified procedure,” the lawmaker adds, though she concedes that “it is always hard to make a programme that is 110%.”

“It’s important that we have a very intense dialogue with the Commission to make sure that this fund does not go to ideas and values that are not in our treaties,” added Bah Kuhnke, though she insisted that the legislation is “very clear” on what campaigns should be admissible.

Having passed the legislation allowing the programme to start, the Parliament has no formal role in drawing up the guidelines that will dictate how funds are applied for and used.

“As parliamentarians, we will closely scrutinise the Commission,” said Bah Kuhnke.

“I am convinced that they want to do the best by this programme,” she added, pointing out that both Commissioner Reynders and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were “proud to talk about our values and what the EU should be” at the plenary debate on the file in April.

At the same time, EU lawmakers have a duty to ensure that civil society groups are aware of the programme and how to obtain funding.

“As the Green group, we want to raise awareness,” said Bah Kuhnke. “This is a new process for many actors and one of the responsibilities we have is to let people know what is there for them. This our responsibility.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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