These threats include legal changes ranging from the criminalisation of some civil society work such as providing humanitarian assistance to migrants through to laws prohibiting some forms of assembly including bona fide demonstrations. Public and private funding difficulties also hamper the ability of civil societies being able to function effectively. Another issue is the reduced access to information and participation in decision-making processes, affecting transparency and good governance. In addition, civil society activists face constant threats and attacks. “In too many parts of the EU it is dangerous to be a vocal member of civil society – we need energetic engagement on the part of authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crime against those working for the rights of minorities, migrants and other vulnerable groups,” he said.
He went to suggest ways to strengthen civil society. First and foremost he said: “It is a matter of straightforward international human rights law that the state must foster a thriving civil society.” He then spoke of the importance of the EU practising internally what it advocates others beyond the EU to do. This includes reframing discussions on the shrinking space for civil society to underline the impact it is having on society and the rights of the many people civil society supports and defends.
The FRA Director then committed the Agency to helping strengthen civil society. He spoke of the Agency’s work on mapping the civic space in EU Member States that will be further elaborated into an upcoming report on the shrinking civil society space in Europe.
Already it has revamped its Fundamental Rights Platform, which currently brings together over 500 civil society organisations from across the EU. The enhanced Platform will build on the Agency’s longstanding collaboration with civil society to bring in more organisations representing a much wider range of interests. This will further take shape during its second Fundamental Rights Forum that will take place in September 2018 where there will be a strong focus on the role of civil society in Europe, with a view towards strengthening public policy strategies needed in this area.
The conference was organised by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to kick off the next cycle of the civil society programme funded by the EEA and Norway Grants. Past and future programmes funded by the EEA and Norway Grants, a major contributor to strengthening civil society in the EU, were presented during the event. The Agency cooperates with the Grants on a number of programmes in support of human rights.