VIENNA – The EU should take advantage of its new momentum and extend its future Comprehensive Civil Society Strategy and the European Civil Space Index to candidate countries and Western Balkan countries to accelerate accession to the EU, recommends Policy brief “Civil society organizations and their “space” in declining democracies”published within the WB2EU network.
The authors urge that the rules for applying for and being eligible for funding from government and international institutions be more transparent. “The EU must reduce or simplify the bureaucracy of the funding application process for civil society organisations, both in the EU and in candidate countries.”
According to the Policy Brief’s recommendations, the collaboration of independent media and civil society organizations could be useful in countering the anti-civilian discourse of civil society organizations towards the government.
“The EU could support media campaigns aimed at raising awareness among citizens of the positive role that civil society organizations play in democracies. Furthermore, the international community should publicly account for defamations, attacks, threats and harassment of civil society organizations,” the authors recommend.
The policy brief addresses the situation of civil society organizations in Hungary and Serbia by analyzing data provided by the Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index (CSOSI). It is explained that the “shrinking space” for CSOs in both countries means that governments are attempting to defame these organizations in the media, control their funding base, restrict their legal basis and, in some cases, even to intimidate CSO representatives.
Although the political contexts of Hungary and Serbia are quite similar, the authors believe that governments use different strategies to hinder civil society activities, adding that the marginalization of CSOs leads to an exclusionary form of democracy, which ignores the needs and demands of civil society. the general public.
Hungary is an example of democratic backsliding within the EU, while Serbia is stuck on the path to European integration and lacks the capacity to develop a democratic system.
The Hungarian case: attack on the legal environment for CSOs:
The Policy Brief recalls data from the 2021 CSOSI annual report, in which Hungary received a score of “4.0” and was therefore classified as a country where the overall sustainability of CSOs is evolving.
According to Policy Brief, the Hungarian case shows that civil space is easily restricted by legal means by the government, which claims to protect the interests of a supposedly homogeneous society against “foreign” and liberal influences.
The authors assessed that in Hungary, beyond anti-NGO legislation, the government also aims to negatively influence the public image of CSOs. Due to the Fidesz party’s dominance over the Hungarian media landscape, pro-government media can easily shape the public image of CSOs through the Hungarian government’s anti-CSO strategy.
“They are generally hostile towards Hungarian CSOs that are not supported by the government. After CSOs addressed migration, the main media targets were LGBTQIA+ and children’s rights organizations. They were accused of propagating, among other things, the “transsexualization of children,” “gender craze” and “homosexual propaganda,” the authors explain.
The Serbian case: a divided civil society
Serbia’s CSO Sustainability Index in 2021 reached a score of 4.3 on a scale from 1, the highest score, to 7, the lowest score. Serbia and neighboring Western Balkan countries fall into the “evolving” category regarding the level of strength and sustainability of the CSO sector in the country.
The authors point out that the deterioration of the situation of CSOs in Serbia was recorded in the 2022 European Commission report on Serbia, which mentioned that “systematic cooperation between government and civil society” must be established and that “The enabling environment and service delivery have deteriorated, but advocacy, thanks to the environmental protests of 2021, has improved”.
Policy Brief recalls that the Serbian government took full control of Parliament in the summer of 2020 due to the opposition’s boycott of elections, adding that during this period CSO members received death threats , property was damaged, people were attacked and smear campaigns were carried out. were orchestrated.
The authors point out that in Serbia, legally, there are no restrictions for CSOs, but the overall political situation is not conducive to civil activism.
The authors cite the 2020 case, where 57 CSOs were investigated for money laundering and terrorist financing.
“CSOs are officially allowed to accept foreign funding, but suspicion of externally funded CSOs is fueled by negative narratives from the government and state media. As a result, the reputation of externally funded CSOs is damaged; therefore, state institutions or municipalities might be reluctant to cooperate, as this could have negative political implications for the collaborating politicians or administrators. Public funding of CSOs is limited and aimed at pro-government institutions,” the Policy Brief states.
It is added that Serbia is bound by EU conditionality regarding the accession process; therefore, it refrains from changing the legal framework of CSOs but relies on informal measures to control the organizations. It appears that the Serbian government has an interest in fostering divisions within civil society, in order to further weaken and delegitimize the activities of the most liberal CSOs.
“A democracy with a weak civil society, incapable of bringing together and articulating the different voices and opinions of a pluralistic society, becomes increasingly exclusive, ultimately ignoring the demands of society. An exclusive democratic system is one that dominates the political public sphere and marginalizes everyone,” concludes Policy Brief.
The Policy Brief is published as part of the WB2EU project. The project aims to establish a network of renowned think tanks, do-tanks, universities, higher education institutes and policy centers from the Western Balkans, neighboring countries and EU Member States that will be the most decisive for the process of enlargement and Europeanization of the European Union. the region in the years to come. The WB2EU project is co-financed by the European Commission as part of its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme.