MESSAGE TO EU OFFICIALS

Open Letter for the new European Commission and European Parliament

For a Resilient Civil Society Able to Build on EU Values:
Our Expectations from the New EU Leaders

Launched as the conclusion of the International Civil Society Forum that took place in Bucharest on June 3-4, 2019, and gathered more than 200 participants from 28 European countries. The forum was organised by the Civil Society Development Foundation (Romania) together with the European Civic Forum and Liberties.EU – Civil Liberties Union for Europe, in the framework of the Active Citizens Fund Romania. The event was supported by CNVOS – Center for Information, Cooperation and NGO Development (Slovenia), Europuls – the Centre of European Expertise (Romania) and promoted by the Civil Society Days of the European Economic and Social Committee.

Based on the paper drafted by Israel Butler, Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

Across Europe we are witnessing growing pushback against democracy, fundamental rights, the rule of law and EU values at large. These values include respect for equality, non-discrimination and social inclusion for all (including marginalised and vulnerable groups). They are the values on which the EU is founded, as guaranteed by Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and are common to the Member States. According to Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, the aim of the EU is to promote the wellbeing of its peoples, as well as the values contained in Article 2.

These values are threatened today both by current policies which do not ensure equal access to fundamental rights for all, and regressive populist and authoritarian responses.

Civil society in all its diversity (organisations, movements, informal civic groups, peaceful civic protesters) have become targets of populist authoritarian politicians precisely because they protect democratic standards and institutions, as well as a vision of democracy based on social justice and inclusion.

Following the 2019 European Parliament elections, we need the new European Parliament and European Commission to actively support civil society to maintain its prominent role in protecting and implementing the EU values, defending and acting for access to fundamental rights for all.

For this reason, alongside other civil society manifestos preceding the European elections, such as the Berlin Agenda[1], the Belgrade Call to Action[2], the Five Steps for EU Action[3] and the Philanthropy Manifesto and having consulted our constituencies,  we urge the new European Commission and European Parliament to carry out the following measures:

Empowering civil society across EU countries – Protection against legal/administrative measures. The EU should:

  • Create a special position responsible for civic space in the Commission reporting to the First Vice-President, empowered to receive complaints from CSOs, make diplomatic interventions to protect CSOs under attack, coordinate relevant policies and funding as well as to encourage exchange of good practice among Member States in developing an enabling environment for civil society.
  • Mandate the President of the European Commission to ensure that EU policies and legislation are designed and implemented in the interest of EU citizens by promoting an open, regular and transparent dialogue with civil society.
  • Ensure that it uses the EU legal framework to decisively take legal action against Member States introducing measures to shrink the civic space.
  • Support the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) to conduct regular surveys and issue reports on the state of civil society across the Union.
  • Develop a European legal form for civil society organisations taking inspiration from best practices available across Member States in terms of recognition and support for the freedom of association.
  • Develop guidelines for Member States to avoid regressive misinterpretations of EU law concerning money laundering and terrorist financing, keeping national practices in compliance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  • Provide support for training or guidance from legal specialists to civil society organisations on how they could use national and European law to challenge the restrictions they are facing.
  • Enable and protect philanthropy by calling on Member States to establish an enabling environment for philanthropy and refrain from discouraging philanthropic action, including cross-border philanthropy.

Deterring governments from dismantling institutions and standards. The EU should:

  • Establish a system of regular monitoring and dialogue between the Council, Commission, European Parliament and national governments, to review their implementation of standards for the protection of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.
  • Ensure that legislation under negotiation linking access to EU funding with respect for the rule of law is adopted and actively implemented by the Commission.
  • Use all possible opportunities given by pre-accession negotiations to strengthen the role of civil society in candidate countries, as an essential agent of the rule of law, good governance and fundamental rights.

Ensuring respect for human rights amongst the groups facing the greatest threats in this respect. The EU should:

  • Develop guidelines and minimum standards for Member States to fulfil in order to be fully in line with the provisions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  • Intensify efforts to combat hate speech online and in all media.
  • Prioritise outreach towards vulnerable groups in all civil society funding programmes.
  • Ensure that any EU funding scheme for civil society is available, both in theory and practice, also to smaller, community-based, younger organizations through the use of appropriate grant-making instruments and procedures, including re-granting mechanisms.
  • Ensure greater allocation of funds for projects designed to facilitate greater mixing and integration measures involving the majority population and marginalised ethnic and social groups, for example, housing projects, school exchanges and joint community projects.
  • Put safeguards in place to ensure that the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme, as well as other European funding programmes dedicated to civil society, are only accessible to CSOs that promote and protect democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights within the meaning of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Boosting local democracy. The EU should:

  • Revise existing EU laws that can prevent municipal authorities from providing effective, good quality public services, such as certain rules on public procurement, services of general interest and free movement of services.
  • Facilitate meaningful consultative forums for CSOs working at local and national level to communicate directly with the EU on matters affecting local social policy and public services.
  • Facilitate the involvement of local and national CSOs in the work of the EESC and the Committee of Regions.
  • Encourage the involvement of civil society in the preparations of each Member State for the rotating Presidency to the Council of the EU, as civil society is the most efficient actor in informing citizens about the exercise and also in gathering input for the priorities and positions of the relevant Member State during this period.

Improving formal and non-formal civic education. The EU should:

  • Dedicate more funds to exchanges between Member States among school children as a means of encouraging the development of mutual respect, empathy and perspective taking.
  • Fund the development of educational materials and training on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights for use by CSOs and schools.
  • Support non-formal public education programmes aimed at increasing public understanding of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. The EU should ensure that adequate funds are available for this under the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme.
  • Develop guidelines for Member States to implement civic education curricula at all levels of education based on the recommendations laid down in the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education.

Supporting the development of narratives and communications strategies and tools in support of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. The EU should:

  • Through the FRA, fund the development of thorough and effective communications toolkits adapted to the cultural and linguistic particularities of each Member State.
  • Through the FRA, fund masterclasses, workshops and ongoing expert support to CSOs on communications and framing.

Delivering effective, human rights compliant counter-terrorism measures. The EU should:

  • Ensure that EU legislation in general, and counter-terrorism in particular, is in line with the full respect of human rights, including the right to privacy. It should not authorise blanket mass surveillance, and bring infringement proceedings against governments whose laws are not in line with such EU standards.
  • Help CSOs protect themselves against surveillance by supporting the delivery of training from civil society organisations in the digital technology sector to make sure that CSO staff adequately protect the privacy of their communications, through the FRA.

Ensuring media independence. The EU should:

  • Reform the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive to include guarantees for the independence of public service broadcasters and ensure editorial independence from owners for public and private media outlets.
  • Ensure that competition rules include an effective guarantee for the plurality of media ownership in a way that protects democratic pluralism.
  • Support non-profit models for media outlets, for example through taxes on news aggregators like Google and Facebook and through exemptions on taxation for non-profit outlets similar to those in place for charitable associations.
  • Support independent, high quality media through media literacy programmes, training for journalists on media ethics and grants to independent journalists or new non-profit media outlets.

Further context: the nature of the problems and their causes

I. How does the shrinking civic space fit into broader attacks on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights?

The shrinking civic space is one symptom of a broader attack on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. Support for politicians with populist authoritarian agendas is growing among the public. Populist authoritarians pursue a number of goals: drawing power away from independent institutions like the judiciary and parliament towards the executive; taking control of the media and restricting freedom of expression and assembly; weakening protection for historically marginalised groups such as women, LGBTI persons, ethnic minorities and migrants; promoting harsh treatment of prisoners and weakening protection for criminal suspects; weakening environmental protection and anti-corruption mechanisms.

Civil society organisations become targets of populist authoritarian politicians because they protect the standards, institutions and marginalised groups that populist authoritarians attack. Civil society organisations are also targeted because of their ability to mobilise the public, provide an alternative source of information on current affairs and create progressive narratives that challenge the threat / competition / fear / hate-based narratives used by authoritarians to stir up public support.

II. What kinds of measures do populist authoritarians take against civil society organisations?

Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of measures. 1) Limiting access to funding by blocking or taxing sources of funding, publishing the names of donors, and removing public funds. 2) Imposing excessively burdensome administrative requirements, for example, on financial reporting, coupled with severe penalties for non-compliance. 3) Intimidation of activists through, for example, attacks on reputation, hate speech, tolerating attacks by third parties against reputation, property or staff and administrative harassment, such as unfounded audits. 4) Smear campaigns designed to destroy the public’s trust in civil society organisations, which damages their ability to inform or mobilise the public, as well as reducing the flow of donations.

III. Why are voters increasingly supporting politicians with authoritarian agendas?

It is well established by researchers that a significant proportion of voters respond to a feeling of being left behind by policy makers and a perception of fear for their future by voting for parties with authoritarian political agendas or even embracing their authoritarian political attitudes. Sources of threat and competition of the kind that cause people to endorse authoritarian political attitudes can take different forms. These include:

  • Economic shock caused by a recession;
  • Rejection of growing inequalities;
  • A feeling of physical insecurity due to terrorism and crime;
  • Challenges to traditional cultural norms;
  • Competition for resources;
  • Challenges to traditional social and economic hierarchies
  • Lack of trust in institutions.

EU countries have experienced some of these sources of threat and competition objectively, such as economic recession. But other sources of threat and fear have been exaggerated or entirely manufactured by populist authoritarians, often with the help of the media sometimes on purpose and sometimes unwittingly. For example, civil society organisations have been falsely portrayed as threatening traditional cultural norms and security. What matters, for the purposes of provoking support for authoritarian political agendas, is perception, rather than the objective reality of threats. For example, populist authoritarian politicians have been able to base successful election campaigns around migration in countries that experience very little migration.

In the past, people pre-disposed to authoritarian attitudes were rather more scattered across support for different political parties than is the case now. What populist authoritarians are now doing is uniting committed/highly predisposed authoritarians behind their causes, while also gradually capturing the voters in the ‘moveable middle’ of society. The reason that populist authoritarian politicians are now gaining such strength is also a result of the mainstream policies that led to a growing number of people being left behind while wealth continued to be accumulated by a shrinking section of society. Politicians with a populist authoritarian agenda have built support because a) of external factors that they have been able to exploit (economic recession, migration, terrorism and changes in cultural norms); and b) they have become extremely adept at developing and spreading threat / fear / competition / hate-based narratives, aided in part by the poor state of media pluralism and the rise of the internet. Given the commonalities in the rhetoric and political agendas of authoritarian politicians, it is highly likely that these political movements are also benefiting from common sources of training, expertise, guidance and other forms of support.

[1] Developed in the frame of the European Conference “Not without Us!” on 21-22 March 2019 in Berlin organised by BBE – Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement with the support of the European Civic Forum in the frame of the European campaign “Make Europe Great for All – #MEGA”.
[2] Developed within the 2019 Civicus International Civil Society Week.
[3] Developed 2018 by the Open Society Justice Initiative.

About the forum

Across Europe we witness a growing pushback against democracy, fundamental rights, the rule of law and the EU values at large. These values include respect for equality, non-discrimination and social inclusion for all (including marginalised and vulnerable groups, migrants, women, disabled, LGBTI). These values are threatened today both by current policies which do not ensure equal access to fundamental rights for all, and regressive populist and authoritarian responses.

Civil society organisations and movements have become targets of populist authoritarian politicians precisely because they protect the democratic standards and institutions, as well as a vision of democracy based on social justice and inclusion. While the UE is becoming more vulnerable with its core values seriously challenged, the work we do for our constituencies on the grounds set out by the EU values is threatened on a daily basis.

The forum thus sets forth to coagulate and enable the contribution of civil society to the strengthening of the European Union values. We shall investigate our greatest challenges in this respect and put forward our expectations from the new EU leaders. Following the 2019 European Parliament elections, we need the new European Parliament and European Commission to actively support civil society to maintain its prominent role in protecting and implementing the EU values, defending and acting for access to fundamental rights for all.

At the conclusion of the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, this forum will build a common message of civil society for the future Commission and the future European Parliament in the same spirit of building a value-based Europe and rebuilding the civil society’s space to actively contribute to this goal.

PROGRAMME JUNE 3

Hanul lui Manuc (62-64 Franceză Street)

Shaking Europe from Periphery

A two-hour conversation with activists and analysts from across Europe, powered by the European Civic Forum and Europe for Citizens

 

We will look at positive examples of civic mobilisations from peripheries, illustrating the European values of solidarity, equality, inclusion, tapping into their potential for developing counter narratives against the dreadful regressive trends we witness across Europe. This discussion is all the more important in a regional context where people are particularly confronted with a deep disillusionment with the transitional promise of democratic consolidation and economic prosperity after the fall of the iron curtain. In recent years, a new face of South Eastern Europe burst into the spotlight, dyed with walls, barber wires, revival of nationalism and identity politics pushed by authoritarian, antidemocratic regimes. In the same time, mistrust in political institutions and representatives has sparked into new forms of civic protest and resistance, reclaiming values that go against those regressive discourses and policies.

What are the possible drivers to keep authoritarianism at bay and build a convincing progressive perspective? How can fights against nationalist, xenophobic and antidemocratic authoritarianism converge and feed the broad perspective of a wider fight against the current EU integration model mostly based on competition of all against all with constantly shrinking solidarity policies?

These will be the questions that will be address “with the pessimism of reason and the optimism of will” to build civic-driven alternatives for open, democratic and inclusive societies.

  • Eszter Kovats – Researcher, Eötvös Loránd University Budapest (HU)
  • Florin Poenaru – Anthropologist and co-editor of CriticAtac, Romania (RO)
  • Michal Dadlez – Co-founder, Obywatele (PL)
  • Gaia Romeo – Researcher and campaigner, A buon diritto/Numeri Pari (IT)
  • Milos Injac – Founding member, Ne Davimo Beograd (SRB)

 

Moderator: Alexandrina NajmowiczDirector, European Civic Forum and intro by Andrei Pop – Programme Director, Civil Society Development Foundation (RO)

PROGRAMME JUNE 4

Sheraton Bucharest Hotel (5-7 Calea Dorobanți)

Welcome & registration

PLATINIUM HALL

Opening

  • Welcome: H.E. Mrs. Lise Kleven GrevstadAmbassador of Norway and Ionuț SibianExecutive Director, Civil Society Development Foundation (RO)

 

The session will explore the outlook of some of the major institutional and civil society stakeholders on the most significant challenges for the EU today and the role civil society should play in the strengthening of the support for EU values.

 

  • Luca Jahier – President, European Economic and Social Committee (EU)
  • Anna Rurka – President, Council of Europe INGO Conference (EU)
  • Andreas Accardo – Head of Unit Institutional Cooperation & Networks, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights FRA (EU)
  • Jean-Marc Roirant – Chair, Civil Society Europe and President, European Civic Forum

 

Moderated by Csilla Czimbalmos – Senior Adviser, Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NO)

PLATINIUM HALL

 

Keynote speech

His Excellency Mr. Klaus Werner Iohannis, President of Romania

Coffee break

PLATINIUM HALL

 

Strengthening civil society’s contribution to  defending and promoting EU values

 

While looking at some of the greatest challenges faced by civil society in terms of operating environment, we shall review potential solutions developed by the sector so far and discuss our proposal to encapsulate them in an open letter for the new European Commission and European Parliament.

 

  • Worrying legislative changes for the associative sector across Europe: Luben Panov – Program Consultant, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law ECNL
  • Make Europe Great for All campaign and the Berlin agenda for the Future of Europe: Alexandrina Najmowicz – Director, European Civic Forum
  • Council Presidencies as an opportunity to strengthen civil society contributions: Tana Foarfă – Director, EUROPULS – the Centre of European Expertise (RO)
  • How to protect European values through a resilient civil society: Israel Butler – Head of Advocacy, Liberties.EU

 

Moderated by Andrei Pop – Programme Director, Civil Society Development Foundation (RO)

 

Q&A

Lunch break

Civil society challenges for the new EU leadership: for the defence of EU values

 

Parallel workshops

 

On four major topics related to our work around EU values, the parallel workshops will be an opportunity to provide depth to our difficulties, while improving our expectations from the new EU leadership put forward in the open letter proposal.

ORGANISERS

CONTACT

Iuliana Rada
Communications Coordinator
Active Citizens Fund Romania
Civil Society Development Foundation/Fundația pentru Dezvoltarea Societății Civile (Romania)

iuliana.rada@fdsc.ro

0749.088.885

About the Active Citizens Fund Romania
The Active Citizens Fund Romania is funded under the EEA and Norway Grants 2014-2021 and operated by a consortium composed of the Civil Society Development Foundation, the Romanian Environmental Partnership Foundation, the Resource Center for Roma Communities, PACT Foundation and Frivillighet Norge, acting as Fund Operator on behalf of the Financial Mechanism Office (FMO). The Active Citizens Fund Romania aims at strengthening civil society and active citizenship and empowering vulnerable groups. It has a total allocation of 46,000,000 Euro and shall seek to develop the long-term sustainability and capacity of the civil society sector, enhance its role in promoting democratic participation, active citizenship and human rights, while strengthening bilateral relations with the donor states.

 

About the Civil Society Development Foundation Romania
Civil Society Development Foundation (CSDF) is an independent, non-governmental organization set up in 1994 at the initiative of the European Commission. CSDF promotes a strong and sustainable civil society that contributes to defending democratic values by supporting civil society actors, mobilizing resources, fostering a favorable environment, and strengthening co-operation with other sectors. For more information, please visit www.fdsc.ro.

 

About the European Civic Forum
European Civic Forum is a transnational network bringing together over 100 organizations from 27 European countries, actively working for human rights protection, democracy promotion and civic education. For more information, please visit www.civic-forum.eu.

 

About Liberties.EU
The Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) is a non-governmental organisation promoting the civil liberties of everyone in the European Union. We are headquartered in Berlin and have a presence in Brussels. Liberties is built on a network of national civil liberties NGOs from across the EU. Liberties works for the peoples of the EU and its member countries to live in societies where their civil liberties are protected, where they can participate freely in the democratic process and where their governments respect the rule of law. For more information, please visit www.liberties.eu.

 

About CNVOS – Center for Information, Cooperation and NGO Development Slovenia
CNVOS is the umbrella organisation of Slovenian civil society and serves as an information, training and advocacy center for NGOs. Similar to CSDF, CNVOS will engage in Slovenia in coagulating the voice of civil society in the context of the Slovenian Presidency at the Council of the European Union in 2021. For more information, please visit www.cnvos.si.

 

About EUROPULS – the Centre of European Expertise Romania
Europuls is a non-governmental organisation founded in 2010 in Brussels by a group of Romanian experts in European affairs, working to promote the European integration process in Romania and to help develop a European public space. Europuls is the initiator and the main organiser of EUROSFAT, the Bucharest annual forum dedicated to debates on European issues. For more information, please visit www.europuls.ro.

 

About Civil Society Days 2019
Civil Society Days is the major annual event by which the European Economic and Social Committee and the Liaison Group cooperate together on cross-cutting issues of common interest. This year it will focus on two main pillars, Democracy and Sustainability, and will explore their links and interactions. The 2019 edition will not only be a very timely occasion for civil society organisations to address these key issues for the future of Europe but will also comprise, for the first time, cooperation with parallel events on national level, as the International Civil Society Forum, to engage as much as possible with citizens on crucial topics for all of us. For more information, please visit www.eesc.europa.eu.

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