Shrinking Space for Civil Society

Why is the shrinking space for civil society problematic?

The shrinking space of civil society prevents its actors from voicing the concerns of different communities and in accessing governments and other democratic institutions to perform their watchdog role effectively. This is problematic as an active and well-developed civil society at member-state and EU levels provides an essential protection against the erosion of values such as the respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.

To what extent is this an issue in Europe?

While the shrinking space for civil society has been a phenomenon witnessed outside of the EU for many years, it has now also become a reality in several European Member States. In 2018, CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks civic space issues globally, identified 11 European members’ states where civic space has become ‘narrowed’ or ‘obstructed’. While civic space challenges vary according to particular national contexts, appearing more acute in countries such as Hungary, Poland or Romania, Civitates considers these challenges to be shared concerns for Europe as a whole.

What are the main challenges faced by civil society in Europe?

According to the European Fundamental Rights Agency, civil society in Europe faces five main challenges:

1.      Right to participate and exist: civil society organizations are currently facing many hurdles in exercising this right at member-state and EU levels, including a lack of access to policy-makers and consultation mechanisms.

2.      Safe space for civil society: civil society organizations are currently facing smear campaigns and are being given a negative image in the public discourse.

3.      Regulatory environment: civil society organizations are confronted with regulatory hurdles imposed by Member States which infringe on their freedom of association, freedom of opinion, expression and information and their freedom to peaceful assemble.

4.      Finance and Funding: civil society organizations face several legal and practical hurdles in accessing funding which is crucial to their work (restrictions on foreign funding).

5.      Space for exchange and dialogue: civil society organizations lack possibilities and mechanisms to exchange best practices in an open, transparent and regular dialogue.

Additionally, several internal factors challenge the work of civil society organisations. Exchanges and collaboration exist but are often limited or in specific areas only. Few cross-sectoral actions exist through which different actors in society join forces, even for a limited time, to collectively address the issues with which they are confronted. Civil society organizations would also benefit from building stronger constituencies, diversification of their income sources, and improvement of their strategic communications capacities.

What role can foundations play?

Democracy needs constant investment and European philanthropy has an important role to play considering its track record in promoting democratic values, democratic practice and European civil societies. In addition to providing financial support, foundations provide a platform for relevant players to meet, to foster synergies, and to be inspired by international peers. Foundations are also in an interesting position to ‘connect the dots’ and pick up on trends we see across different geographies.

How do you plan to address this issue?

We will kick off by supporting cross-sectoral coalitions in several European countries. Rather than focusing on independent action as the primary vehicle for social change, Civitates’ initial focus is on creating more and stronger coalitions across Europe. Of course, coalition building is nothing new. There are plenty of examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. However, those that go beyond capital cities and across different sectors are a lot less common and need active support. We feel that substantially greater progress could be made in addressing the shrinking space for civil society if civil society actors engage those outside the nonprofit sector, focussing on a common agenda and mutually reinforcing activities.

Why is the cross-sectoral element so important?

Complex societal issues like these require broad cross-sector coordination. No single organization, however innovative or powerful, could improve the situation by itself. While isolated interventions of individual organizations can lead to important improvements in specific areas, system-wide progress will be almost unobtainable. We therefore need collective impact, a commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for addressing the shrinking space for civil society.