Civil society organisations (“CSO”) in the EU play a crucial role in promoting fundamental rights. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (“EUAFR”) cooperates and consults with such organisations, with recent findings showing that they are struggling more and more to make in impact within the Union, due to both legal and practical constraints. In January 2018, citing the purported lack of data and research of the nature of different challenges in EU member states, the EUAFR published a report on such challenges.

The Report is split into sections which highlight perceived issues through empirical research, information from outside sources and the identification of CSOs, presenting potential solutions through EUAFR opinions (as follows).

Enabling the Regulatory Environment

A lack of transparency in political campaigns and lobbying laws restricting CSOs’ abilities to inform the public on matters of general interest, as well as impositions of bans on public assemblies at specific times, places and in specific forms, is cited as problematic. Additionally, the report highlights inconsistencies in treatment of certain individuals and groups seeking to assemble and criminal laws in certain member states which still ban defamation or insult of state officials (for example). These disproportionately affect freedom of expression through their draconian effect.

Opinion 1 – increased attention when drafting and implementing legislation in areas which potentially affect civil society space including freedom of expression, assembly and association to ensure there is no disproportionate requirements on CSOs.

Opinion 2 – ensure lobbying regulations and transparency laws and their application comply with applicable EU and international law and do not restrict human rights advocacy.

Finance and Funding

The EUAFR welcomes the EU Commission’s suggestions on eligible expenses of volunteers, facilitating the inclusion of contributions in co-financing. The report highlights a number of challenges in accessing funding and particularly pertinent amongst them are shrinking budgets in EU Member States, funding cuts for CSOs, burdensome and complex procedures for accessing funding and geographic restrictions on the use of funding.

Short term funding (cumbersome for organisations) and negative media coverage as well as unfavourable tax regimes for assisting with funding have caused this problem to increase.

Opinion 3 – ensure funding is available for CSOs working on the EU’s protection and promotion of foundational values and fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law. This should be so for small organisations and must cover a variety of activities.

Opinion 4 – ensure that organisations which represent persons with disabilities are provided with funding to enable them to fulfil their function under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Opinion 5 – EU Commission should improve availability of information regarding existing funding schemes. It should consider adopting guidance for Member States clarifying the applicability of the four “fundamental freedoms” under the common market regime.

Opinion 6 – consider favouring multi-annual and core funding over short-term and project based funding, allowing for a more sustainable basis of work in CSOs as well as long term planning.

Right to participation

Article 11 of the Treaty of the European Union specifies that EU institutions “shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action” and “shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations”. The report highlights obstacles to full and effective participation and access to the decision-making process such as lack of political will or understanding of consultation, lack of awareness by public services and skills in methods to involve stakeholders.

Opinion 7 - EU institutions and Member States should uphold their obligations to consult closely with and involve persons with disabilities and their representative organisations in relevant decisions. Participation of persons with disabilities in public and political life should be encouraged in line with Article 29 (b) of the CRPD.

Ensuring a safe space for civil society

This highlights the threat of physical and verbal violence, harassment and intimidation from state and non-state actors for CSOs and activists, including online and offline narratives that stigmatise or discredit work. The report notes that it is vital for public officials to refrain from attacks, and unfounded attempts to discredit organisations that promote human rights and non-discrimination.

Opinion 8 - refrain from the stigmatisation of human rights CSOs and their members. A solution would be active condemnation of crimes committed against CSOs and their members and to fully implement their positive obligations under international law and applicable EU law to protect CSOs and their members.

Space for exchange and dialogue

The report raised the lack of reliable and comparable data on attacks against CSOs across the EU. It also notes a lack of information on available funding schemes and expenditure for human rights focused CSOs, the regulatory environment and channels for civil society organisations’ participation in policy-making. A clear effort in observing developments, allowing for “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society” is required.

Opinion 9 - consider supporting the establishment of an appropriate space for exchange and dialogue to promote the support of civil society actors engaged in the protection and promotion of fundamental rights in the EU.

One of the main takeaway points from the report is policymaking and a push for intensification of efforts to protect, promote and fulfil human rights within the EU (as well as externally). The report emphasises the role of states in creating positive obligations to promote human rights. Article 51 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights obliges the Union and its Member States to respect all Charter rights and “observe the principles and promote the application thereof…”, with freedom of association, peaceful assembly, expression and information being of particular importance when EU States are acting in the context of EU law.