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The EU’s Lessons for Supporting Civil Society in Member States

June 30, 2020
by
Pavel Havlicek
3 min read
In recent years, the European Union has suffered from democratic backsliding and the erosion of the rule of law as well as from a weakening of other fundamental values, particularly in the Central

In recent years, the European Union has suffered from democratic backsliding and the erosion of the rule of law as well as from a weakening of other fundamental values, particularly in the Central and Eastern European member states. At the same time, the EU has been doing more and is better equipped in term of funding, capacity, and tools to respond to the shrinking space for civil society outside of its territory than inside. This discrepancy is above all caused by a general lack of political will and resistance to by intervention the EU institutions within member states.

However, this situation seems to be changing and—despite the coronavirus emergency—the European Commission appears to be now prepared to tackle the issue through a combination of legislative and non-legislative measures, including the EU Action Plan for Democracy, the Rights and Values Program, the Media Action Plan, and the Digital Services Act. This paper analyzes the tools and instruments that the EU uses to support civil society in three associated countries (Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova) and looks for examples of good practice and innovative solutions that can be applied to the EU itself.

This paper offers recommendations to bolster the EU’s democratic governance, rule of law, and other fundamental values by supporting civil society, which is a key ally in this process. They relate to the design of the Rights and Values Program, conditionality, and the restoration of the status of civil society, and the operational side of the EU’s engagement with civil society.

The Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 will determine whether the EU is serious about its values and civil society and whether it is going to devote sufficient financial resources to them, despite the countervailing pressure from some member states as well as the urgency to deal with other priorities related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Civil society can help restore civil rights and fundamental freedoms inside the EU, and the EU’s previous experience with external tools and instruments can make a meaningful contribution to that. The EU should analyze and try to replicate the largely positive experience from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the European Endowment for Democracy, which support civil society in its neighborhood and the world. For example, the EU has now no specific tool to support human rights defenders internally, and it should have a flexible and swift response mechanism out of the hands of EU member states to provide operational support to civil society under threat. The EU should also work smartly with conditionality, and it should have the possibility stop the funding to the national governments, or to redirect it to pro-democracy and pro-reform groups in member states in cases of severe democratic backsliding and erosion of the rule of law. Finally, the EU should bolster its presence in member states and substantially increase its communication and interaction with groups upholding its core values, including civil society, independent media, and other pro-EU circles in society.

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