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Civic space in Europe – declining but defendable?

Peter Varga |

What’s common in an Irish web designer marrying his same-sex partner, an Estonian pensioner designing options of her own elderly care, and a group of Macedonian activists voicing their plans for better civil society funding? Besides the fact they are all exercising their fundamental human rights, they all also use opportunities afforded to them thanks to the expanded civic space created by participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

As outlined in its 2014 Action Plan, Ireland held the first referendum in the world on legalizing same-sex marriage. Estonia set up a participatory platform that allows citizens to table crowdsourced policy proposals that gather 1000 digital signature to parliament. And Macedonia developed a string of commitments to strengthen civil society participation in decision-making, with the OGP process remaining the only “bright light” of discussions as the country went through years of diminished social dialogue.

These and countless other examples were discussed at a recent gathering of civil society actors, human rights activists, and public officials at a forum on the state of civil society and civic space in Europe. The event took place in Tallinn, during the Presidency of the Council of the European Union held by Estonia – a country where youth feel their human rights are trampled on if they don’t have access to free public Wi-Fi, and where political leaders are no longer using pens (as all laws are now signed digitally).

Still, contrary to common misconceptions, the “old continent” is far from immune to the global trend of closing civic space. While most European countries do start from a relatively enviable position when it comes to respect for fundamental rights and an enabling environment for civil society, the latest Civicus Monitor finds that less than half of the EU member states now have an ‘open’ environment for civil society: “an uncomfortable statistic for the leaders of a union founded on the values of democracy and human rights.” Three out of the eight countries where civic space ratings worsened since previous updates are within the EU – a disproportionately high number for the size of the country grouping. (You can find the report on broad trends in your country via this survey)

We heard the reasons why civic space is on the decline globally: increased distrust in institutions and elites, driven largely by widening inequality and rampant corruption; misconceived efforts to combat terrorism; a perceived success of centralized development models; the rise of xenophobia and populism; backlash against a new wave of activism and human rights in general, etc. What is more crucial, however, is finding antidotes to these trends to protect and expand civic space – a sine qua non for rebuilding trust and good governance.

Various solutions were proposed at the forum in Tallinn to these ends. Here are just a few interesting ones:

  1. Demonstrating impact and increasing its visibility: for too long, it’s almost been taken for granted that everyone sees the work of civil society organizations in a positive light, which, hence, does not really need promotion. Many CSOs scramble to publicise their good work and counter the narrative that they are foreign agents with particularistic agendas when it’s already too late. Instead (and donors should also take note), CSOs should continuously publicise their impact and engage with a wide array of local stakeholders to proactively counter the myth that they are not useful or promote foreign interests – doing so will build a natural immune system against a counter-narrative, should it ever come. Part of this effort is indeed going to the grassroots and stepping out of ivory towers, jargon-lands and capital-based echo chambers.

  2. Building alliances and coalitions for change: divide and conquer has long been a tactic of the powerful to neutralize dissent and criticism – and civil society should not fall for it. Competition for funding and differences of opinion on societal solutions may also run counter to the need of teaming up with fellow CSOs and building bridges to wider civil society, businesses, government reformers or academia. Still, not only do such coalitions perform better in protecting the space for advocacy, but they are also more likely to successfully expand civic space and fundamental rights via concerted action and solidarity. This also means reframing the conversation on civic space – pointing out consistently that it is not an end in itself, nor is it only important for civil society. Rather, it enables crucial dialogue and innovation that benefits everyone – the wider public, governments and the private sector alike -, inducing social stability and economic growth, engendering creativity and effective solutions and building trust: the ultimate bedrock of a peaceful society, a prosperous economy and a functioning democracy.

  3. Consistent advocacy for civic space and fundamental rights at the international/pan-European level: while the UN SDGs finally link respect for human rights to development goals, they also unfortunately come at a time when restrictions on civic space is becoming normalized. Given the high-level attention and funding focus they receive, the SDGs should be mainstreamed into every discussion on civic space, fundamental rights and government-civil society relations. Similarly, other multilateral organizations should condition their development support on respect for these values and principles. Encouraging attempts at both the EU and the World Bank should be further pursued and supported. Participants also agreed that strengthening civic space and civil society engagement should be a transversal priority linking the current and upcoming EU Presidencies of Estonia, Bulgaria, Austria, Romania, Finland and Croatia (and so on). The Juncker Commission’s political guidelines and calls for a Union of democratic change and fundamental rights based on mutual trust align very well with this aim.

Luckily, all the above actions can be strengthened by and through our Partnership. Reiterating and mainstreaming the civic space conversation at the national roundtables that co-create Action Plans, as well as including commitments related to the expansion and protection of civic space and fundamental rights (currently amounting to only about 4% of all commitments) would not only bring non-siloed thinking, enhanced visibility and broader buy-in to these issues, but also increase the chances of implementation through local and IRM-monitoring, as well as international recognition and cross-pollination – precisely at the time when the international civil society community needs to show concerted support for the resilience and vibrancy of civic space.

For our part, OGP has a “Response Policy”, the primary instrument at the Partnership’s disposal to protect against backsliding in civic space. Also, a crucial “Values Check” assessment has recently been added to the existing eligibility criteria in order to make sure countries joining abide by higher standards of respecting civic space. Also, the Support Unit is about to publish a series of papers on how civic space can be expanded and protected via commitments and process of the Partnership, in conjunction with our partners the International Center for Not-for-profit Law and CIVICUS. Stay tuned!