01 November 2016
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A Europe-wide survey of 300 civil society organisations has highlighted significant concern over a "trend for deterioration in key civic space freedoms", with respondents from central and eastern Europe keen to highlight limitations on the freedom of association and a general decline in respect for democratic principles.
The survey was conducted by two international civil society organisations, CIVICUS and Civil Society Europe, and sought to discover if "civil society organisations feel that their rights are being eroded," as "part of a wider global process to understand and analyse the changes that are taking place in many countries."
Many of responses, summarised in a report published in October, highlight a clear difference between different regions of Europe. For example:
"In Western Europe there was a sense that confidence in freedom of association, ie. the basic right to register as an NGO, charity or association, remains very strong and it was particularly high in North West Europe, at nearly 90%. In Central, Eastern and Southern Europe the average was lower but still at approximately 60%."
Responses from Hungary pointed out that while the legal framework clearly permits freedom of association, "state institutions do not hesitate to search offices, accounts etc. whenever they think it is necessary," and "conditions of CSOs [civil society organisations] that are critical of the government... have deteriorated, they were subjected to harassment by the government."
Similarly, 70% of respondents from western Europe perceived that the right to freedom of expression remained well-protected; in central and eastern Europe only 55% of respondents felt the same.
Major concerns over funding also emerge from the survey. Almost 40% of the responding organisations have a turnover lower than $80.000. Funding available has become more limited in recent years, many grants or funds are only available under stringent conditions or through labyrinthine bureaucracy.
The report notes:
"The greatest issue of concern... for almost a third of respondents is funding restrictions. In Hungary, for example, access to funding from foreign donors has in some cases been blocked... 'Lots of NGOs struggle for financial survival as distribution of grants is maintained by authorities with strong governmental influence, ensuring that NGOs critical of the government do not or scarcely receive financial support for their projects.'"
Other issues that rate highly on the list of concerns are surveillance and counter-terrorism measures, "suggesting that these practices have an increasing impact on CSOs and are often combined with funding restrictions against organisations that find themselves under scrutiny."
With regard to states and governments upholding democratic principles, the survey finds that:
"In this question there was a clear difference of opinion between those in Western & North Western Europe, who continued to believe that the core democratic principles were functioning reasonably well in their countries; and those in Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe where the averages were worryingly low."
The respondents were also clear on the rise of intolerance and bigotry: "An overwhelming majority (84%) sees an increase of nationalism and discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities in Europe."
The majority of respondents also took a dim view of the EU's efforts - or lack thereof - in promoting and upholding fundamental rights: "66,4% (69,9 % in Eastern Europe) would like the EU to do more to guarantee and promote civic space in their country. This is for instance the case of the great majority of the Hungarian respondents."
The report expands on this point:
"Comments point to a lack of clarity, and visibility of EU action in guaranteeing and promoting civic space, in particular as regards addressing breaches of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in Member States. There does not seem to be a systematic approach to addressing violations of Article 2 of the Treaties. Furthermore access to EU funding of grassroots organisations is pointed out as an issue. Others are more skeptical about EU intervention since they feel that 'The EU institutions are largely absent and no longer considered as being able to solve problems by an increasing part of the ...citizens'."
On the other hand: "According to another comment 'The EU institutions and the Embassies of the Western countries still represent an engine when it comes to the promotion of democracy and human rights in Romania'."
The report makes a number of recommendations, including:
"Civic space must be included as an important indicator of the assessment of fundamental rights within the EU fundamental rights report and should also be a central aspect of the European Parliament's proposed monitoring mechanism of EU countries on the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights. It should also become a higher priority in any enlargement negotiations."
Source: Civil Society Europe and Civicus, 'Civic Space in Europe Survey', October 2016 (pdf)
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