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Civil society still under threat but awareness is growing

Multiple lightbulbs with text underneath saying civil society.
magele-picture ©, 2023
Civil society organisations in the European Union are still facing threats, due to laws, lack of funding and limited access to decision-making. But the latest findings from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) also reveal growing awareness and support to enable civil society better promote human rights and democracy.

FRA’s ‘Civic space update 2023’ highlights civil society challenges. Examples include strategic lawsuits (SLAPPs) and actions against those involved in migrant search and rescue at sea or against those representing vulnerable groups. It also addresses civil society financing. It also examines recent changes to the challenges holding back civil society:

  • Tackling restrictive laws – Restrictive laws continue to hamper civil society organisations in protecting human rights. They face difficulties in getting information or engaging in policy dialogue. In some cases, however, legal changes have led to improvements such as greater freedom of assembly, less bureaucracy for civil society or efforts to curtail the use of strategic lawsuits to silence opponents. The EU and its Member States need to stand up against laws and efforts that restrict civil society from safeguarding human rights.
  • Countering threats and attacks – Threats and attacks against civil society persist. Some policy areas have become more hostile with human rights defenders facing worsening intimidation. Examples include migration, LGBTIQ+ and women’s rights. Crimes against civil society should be reported and properly recorded, investigated and prosecuted. The EU could consider setting up a centralised system to monitor and act against civil society attacks. Member States should not criminalise the work of civil society.
  • Providing funding – The lack of adequate funding remains a constraint for civil society. However, donors have started to adjust their funds to support capacity building and advocacy. In addition, the EU raised its civil society funding. The EU and its Member States should ensure longer-term financing which covers the breadth of civil society work.
  • Engaging meaningfully in policymaking –Several Member States have strengthened the principle of civil society cooperation. However, it remains sporadic and ad hoc. EU guidelines could better formalise cooperation. Financing and technical support would also improve the involvement of civil society in policy making.

The report updates the findings FRA presented in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019 and 2018 on the challenges civil society faces across the EU.

FRA drew its findings from research in every EU Member State and Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. It collected responses from almost 400 human rights civil society organisations, and conducted desk research, focus groups and interviews.