Democracy in Europe: a shared and ongoing responsibility

Reflections on three years of collaboratively strengthening democracy

Published: 15 September 2021

As every year the International Day of Democracy (an initiative created by the UN as part of their efforts to build democracy) reminds us that democratic principles and values such as respect to human rights, freedom of association, participation, and access to information can’t be taken for granted. In the last years, we have been witnessing the closing of democratic spaces, a rise in disinformation, and an increase in political polarisation. The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated the situation and limitations thought unthinkable not so long ago such as lockdowns, curfews, bans on assemblies and gatherings, limited freedom of movement made people question the future of democracy. These trends come to show that democracy needs constant strengthening and that philanthropy has an important role to play in countering the erosion of democratic principles.

Democracy is not a done deal

There is no single solution to improving the state of democracy in Europe as democracy entangles different aspects and if one starts crumbling, the others follow. Civil society is one of the important elements of the democratic fabric because civil society groups such as NGOs and more informal movements help us make sure that governments are making decisions that consider all of us. Unfortunately, the space for civil society is closing: several governments in Europe are erecting barriers to civil society, harassing individual activists and civil society groups, as well as pushing through restrictive laws or regulatory hurdles which infringe on the freedom of association.

In several European countries, civil society organisations also face legal and practical limitations in accessing funding that is crucial to their work such as restrictions on foreign funding. This prevents civil society groups from voicing the concerns of different communities and performing their watchdog role effectively. While the closing space for civil society has been a phenomenon witnessed outside of the EU for many years, it has now also spread in several EU countries.

Another vital aspect of democracy is the information sphere. Access to trustworthy information is necessary for citizens to be able to make informed decisions on any matter that concerns them and their communities. For decades the main source of information for citizens has been the local news. Technological and digital progress has introduced new ways of information gathering and distribution.

The Internet has changed not only how we consume news but also how we participate in public debate. One of the consequences of digital progress is that independent media organisations, whose work is crucial for citizens to shape opinions, are financially strained as fewer people are willing to pay for news and advertisers are redirecting money to online platforms where unverified information is provided for free.

The other is that we find ourselves with a public sphere divided into two dimensions: the physical public sphere, which is governed by a set of rules, (e.g., libel law, election campaigning rules), and the digital public sphere, where many of those offline rules have not been translated online. The lack of transparency and accountability from technological platforms and the lack of regulations impact negatively the quality of public discourse online and facilitates potential interference, opinion manipulation, and speedy spread of disinformation.

Philanthropy has a role to play

In 2017 European foundations saw these worrying trends that if not countered could be detrimental to democracy and decided to pool funds together within the umbrella of a fund for democracy and solidarity in Europe – Civitates. Since becoming operational in 2018 and as a collaborative philanthropic initiative, Civitates has been empowering civil society organisations to react collectively and effectively when democratic principles such as respect for human dignity, freedom, equality, and the rule of law are not upheld. To be able to respond to the multifaceted challenges for democracy, Civitates has focused on supporting:

  • collective actions so that civil society organisations build up resilience and capacity to stand up against the deterioration of democratic values in their sectors
  • initiatives that aim to better understand what is happening in the digital public sphere, build the evidence base and advocate for regulation of the digital public sphere in a way that upholds democracy and fundamental rights
  • public-interest media organisations that provide information that is reliable and free from interference, support democracy by exposing abuses of power and drivers of polarisation, and defend a space in which all voices are heard.

In the past years, Civitates’ grantee partners have closely monitored the situation in their respective countries. They intervened when common European values were challenged, speaking out against cases of overreach and abuse of power, and throwing their weight behind efforts to anticipate further restrictions on democratic rights. Building long-term relationships with the organisations the collaborative supports, understanding the context they operate in, their specific needs, their strengths, and the challenges they face has been an integral part of Civitates’ work.

Civitates enables philanthropic actors to join efforts and pool sources and expertise together to ensure that civil society actors receive the support they need to counter the challenges they are up against. The collaborative nature of Civitates allows partners to unite efforts for a better impact, embark on new funding ventures together and thus minimise the risk, explore and learn from peers and experts in the field.

The mobilisation of Civitates partner foundations hasn’t weakened. The collaborative has grown and currently comprises 22 foundations who are convinced that democracy needs constant investment and European philanthropy has to step up as together we can strategically maximise funding and catalyse results towards stronger and healthier democracies. Our partners’ commitment also testifies how European philanthropy can and should play a significant part in recognising and supporting the role of CSOs in safeguarding and revitalising our European democracies.

More needs to be done in the future as democracy is not a done deal. The erosion of democratic principles that we are witnessing in many European countries highlights the need for increased coordinated action and collaboration amongst philanthropic organisations. The challenges we are facing are shared.  We can address them by working together, in a spirit of cooperation and European solidarity.