The storyline of the "Reclaim Our Civil Space" project
The storyline of the Reclaim Our Civil Space project was to empower organisations to resist the trends of shrinking the civic space in Europe
An interview by Oana Sandu
Between 2020 and 2023, the Civil Society Development Foundation was part of the project "Reclaim our civil space", which aimed to address the trends of weakening democracy and shrinking civil space observed in recent years, particularly in Central and South-Eastern Europe. The project was implemented with 9 partners in 7 Central and Eastern European countries and Norway.
In Romania - but also in other partner countries - this project has provided several dozen start-up organisations with assistance and mentoring for increasing their capacity to better serve their constituencies.
At the same time, in the framework of Reclaim, the organisations have been working on a European Union civil society strategy to support and protect European CSOs. Ionuț Sibian, director of the Civil Society Development Foundation, Romania and member of the European Economic and Social Committee, tells us more about the European dimension of the Reclaim your civic space project.
What was the European dimension of the Reclaim project, where FDSC was one of the nine European partners?
Mainly, the common line of the organisations we partnered with on this journey, including the Ökotárs Alapítvány Foundation in Hungary (the lead on this project), was to work towards empowering civil society organisations in the countries where the project took place. We identified informal groups and small, newly established grassroot organisations as a category with great potential that was missing in CSDF portfolio. We considered important to assess their needs and evaluate how we can further assist with additional resources. It was a pilot program, a test for us at that time.
In fact, the story line of the Reclaim our civil space project is to empower organisations to resist the trends of diminishing the civic space, and at the European level, to find a solution to counteract this shrinking civic space trend and the increasing pressures on the CSOs. A Brussels issued policy addressing this reality has appeared to be the right approach.
How can we explain this decrease in civic space in 2023? What are the main problems, both in our country and at regional and European level?
In all countries where we see this trend, the common line is to delegitimize civil society. And there are several ingredients to this illiberal recipe. First of all, they are all trying to prove that civil society organizations that criticize the government are in fact organizations sold out to Soros, to big business, to the European Commission, in other words to all those who are against the “national interest”. The narrative is that they do not represent the national interest, the genuine interest of the citizens, but foreign interests, and the narrative is that they want to force the population and politics into an extremely ultra-liberal zone.
Non-governmental organizations deal sometimes with issues that are not necessarily popular to the majority of the population in each country. That is maliciously misinterpreted as being against our national interest and culture, against the traditions in place or customary social rules. Moreover, the organizations are presented as trying to shove things down people throat – issues related to migrants, LGBTIQA+ - and affecting the cultural identity. It's this sovereigntist, identity movement, and civil society is being pitted against it.
Further on societal burning issues that are hard for politicians to address and explain are blamed on nongovernmental organisations. An example of logical fallacy used in the populist discourses would be: we don't have highways in Romania because NGOs want to defend the bears and the birds, hence they initiate litigations in court that generate we have countless lawsuits and the loss of European money thus the construction of highways stagnates. Another example would be that the energy is expensive in Romania because, although Romania has the resources for hydropower, there are CSOs that protest and go to courts, thus the government cannot build hydropower plants.
The immigration issue: it was treated marginally by the Romanian public agenda as Romania hasn’t faced significant immigration waves until the war in Ukraine when the population showed an overwhelming solidarity with the Ukrainians. On the other hand in countries like Slovakia this issue was used against the NGOs as one minister suggested that various immigrant groups should appeal to the NGOs instead of governmental actors. That was a reaction to the critical voice of civil society asking the government to respect human rights standards and offer proper assistance to immigrants. Another example of this would be in Italy, where the discourse that refugees are rescued from the Mediterranean Sea in boats that are paid for by Soros and are being encouraged to cross the sea with is prevalent. And so, CSOs are being used as scapegoats in public discourses for the lack of capacity of public authorities to manage challenging situations. All of these circumstances that are hard to explain and polarizing in the public opinion have an imaginary cause in CSOs critics and demands.
The Reclaim project also involved the creation of a European strategy for civil society?
We, in this Reclaim project, also had this component of creating a strategy for civil society, based on the premise that it should be a policy package for civil society and activists. And we have presented this project to the European Commission, and we advocated for it on several occasions in Brussels.
The second step was during the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, when the Council issued a recommendation to the Member States to safeguard and promote an enabling environment for CSOs. That was the first time that the conclusions of a meeting of a Council focused on this area. It was a public politically assumed recognition of the civic space and an attempt to defend it.
Adequate and accessible funding contributes to the protection of the civic space. The Strategy includes several recommendations in this area and some of them have been mirrored in the European Commission's Citizens Equality Rights and Values (CERV) fund programme. Right now, CSOs need European operational grant funding as the classic project-based funding model is not enough to protect the civic space. The CSOs are the watchdogs of democracy, they must receive core funding to carry out this mission. There is an increasing need to support the well-being of civil society professionals as the salaries in the nonprofit sector have remained low whilst the daily stress and pressure are on rise. The organisations are under-staffed, and the existing professionals are exposed to complex situations when they must serve people with multiple vulnerabilities who do not have many solutions to their problems. There is an increasing burnout rate within the CSOs because of several successive crises (medical, economical, political) and it is hard to replace the personnel who leave due to this phenomenon.
The perspective ahead is to continue to advocate for European policies enabling the civic space. There is a significant number of CSOs whose work is recognised in their communities that are aware about the strength embedded in solidarity and partnership, and they will continue to signal the actions that might threat the democracy in EU. We will continue to encourage the politicians and the European institutions to include the support for civil society in the policy instruments they will enact.
This interview was conducted as part of the "Reclaim our Civil Space!" project.
"Reclaim our Civil Space!" is a project implemented by the Foundation for Civil Society Development (FDSC) with a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Regional Cooperation.
"Reclaim our Civil Space" is based on broadening the base and constitution of civil society by training and mobilising activist groups and movements, facilitating cross-border cooperation and networking and connecting them at the European level by jointly developing the outlines of a comprehensive European civil society policy. For more information about the project visit: www.civilspace.eu.
The content of this material does not necessarily represent the official position of the EEA and Norway Grants 2014-2021; for more information see www.eeagrants.org.