New Decade, Old Challenges: Civic Space in Hungary, Poland and Romania

Thursday - 4 July 2019
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The Poland-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) will use renewed NED support to continue strengthening the resilience of civil society organizations in Central Europe.

In response to growing pressure on civil society in Central Europe, the HFHR together with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) and the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania APADOR will examine the closing civic space in the region and produce a policy paper on the challenge in the three countries.

The paper will serve as a case study for other new member states. The partners will also organize advocacy visits to and an event in Brussels to share the project’s findings and recommendations and raise awareness of the problem in the EU.

Building on its previous, NED-funded project, which aimed to strengthen the resilience of civil society organizations in Central Europe in response to legal restrictions, illiberal campaigns, and government harassment, the HFHR, HHC, and APADOR will plan and carry out an advocacy campaign targeting EU institutions, including the newly elected European Parliament and European Commission, to raise awareness about the closing space for civil society in Central Europe.

The partners will produce a policy paper presenting the breadth, scope, and impact of the restrictions on freedom of association in Poland, Romania, and Hungary that have taken place over the past four years.

Read the full policy paper and recommendations

  1. Recommendations

5.1. Establishing a focal point for CSOs within the European Union institutions

Civic space is shrinking at an alarming rate in the European Union. Depending on the specific legal and political situation in a Member State, it might be less or more advanced, however, with the rise of populism and growing social and political polarization, civil society organizations are now much more exposed to attacks which may be difficult or even impossible to tackle only at the national level. Thus, contact points for civil society organizations should be established within the structures of the European Parliament and the European Commission, which should serve as units gathering information on attacks on civil society organizations and civil society activists and fast-tracking this information to relevant specialised units within both of these institutions.

5.2. EU civil society stability index

Currently, there is no pan-European, comprehensive and regular study analysing the state of civil society and the situation of  civil society organizations in the European Union. In early 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report summarising the challenges organizations face across European Union member states. Despite the comprehensive nature of this research, it has not been updated since it was published. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights should regularly conduct monitoring of civic space and should be provided additional resources necessary to perform this new task.

In order to regularly monitor the situation concerning the health status of the civic sector in Member States and at EU level, the European Commission should prepare  annual reports describing the trends and changes in the sector. (Reports prepared by USAID Civil Society Sustainability Index covering countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans could serve as one example.) The annual report should become a part of the rule of law review cycle and form the basis of a dialogue between the EU institutions and national governments as well as affected stakeholders.

5.3 CSO participation in EU monitoring of rule of law, democracy and human rights

The European Commission should provide CSOs with an opportunity to actively participate in the European Rule of Law Mechanism. The model of participation could be based on the already existing mechanisms used in e.g. reporting before UN Treaty bodies or during the Universal Periodic Review. The mechanism should envisage a fair and equal possibility for CSOs to present their information, but at the same time should provide a mechanism protecting CSOs from reprisals at the national level.