European civil society has mitigated the impact of Covid-19, yet the European Commission proposes reducing support for it.
Since the pandemic struck Europe, civil-society organisations have been at the forefront in supporting communities. They have attended to the needs of vulnerable groups, provided support to healthcare institutions and protected EU citizens’ rights during the lockdown. Yet the European Commission’s proposed Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) envisages cutting their funding by about 25 per cent.
This unexpected inclusion in the draft seven-year budget risks weakening civil society’s role at a time when its work is most needed. It also sends the wrong signal about the European Union’s commitment, in practice, to its own values. Rather than looking for savings in civil-rights promotion, the EU should boost its support for non-governmental organisations—in the vital interest of our societies and democracies.
The European Parliament has long advocated allocating more funds to NGOs. It has consistently demanded that the budget of the Rights and Values programme—a key instrument for supporting NGO activities in the 2021-27 MFF—be almost tripled, from an original commission proposal of €641 million to €1.83 billion. To justify its claim, the parliament pointed to the critical role civil-society organisations play in the promotion and protection of key European values, such as democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.
Covid-19 has made that case even more compelling.
First, NGOs proved to be uniquely equipped to help our societies cope with the pandemic, largely thanks to networks established with local communities and insights developed into their problems over time. At the outset, many organisations quickly expanded their portfolios and mobilised resources to support vulnerable groups, including senior citizens, patients, healthcare workers, minorities and migrants. They have provided help to people undergoing quarantine and other groups at risk, arranged personal protection equipment, including masks for medical workers, and run information and education campaigns about the pandemic.
Without their support the hardship caused by the pandemic would have been worse.
Secondly, civil-society organisations are uniquely placed to hold governments to account and safeguard EU citizens’ rights. This appears more necessary than ever in a context of states of emergency. As our liberties have been suspended or limited due to emergency measures, introduced in most member states, NGOs have monitored whether the restrictions have been proportional, lawful and temporary, as the rule of law requires. They are currently monitoring whether economic-recovery programmes launched by the governments are transparent and corruption-free. And they are ready to step in—as metaphorical boots on the ground—when they see our common European values threatened.
NGOs are often the first to warn that we cannot take our rights for granted. In Poland and Hungary, the authorities have used the pandemic as a pretext to consolidate executive powers and to curtail democratic institutions still further. But the challenge is pan-European and goes beyond the breach of the rule of law. Human-rights groups report an increase in acts of xenophobia throughout the EU, as well as domestic violence.
All over Europe our privacy is at risk, as the pandemic forces individuals to pursue an increasing number of personal and professional activities online. The process of lifting restrictions on citizens’ rights in all member states appears increasingly contested and it remains to be seen whether governments will restore them in full. Civil-society actors are on a mission to avoid a scenario in which we contain the coronavirus at the cost of our rights and freedoms, above and beyond any restraints which are absolutely necessary.
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Last but not least, the pandemic has shown that Europe’s civil society deserves to be supported because it constitutes a vulnerable network itself. Unless backed by European funds, many NGOs will have no means to continue their activities and retain their workforce of highly-skilled professionals dedicated to their communities—their tacit knowledge impossible to rebuild from scratch. Corporate donors, foundations and governments have meanwhile been cutting budgets and/or redirecting funds to support healthcare institutions and other public services, leaving much less for civil society.
Cross-border financial support between NGOs might be reduced even further in a context where priority is given to shoring up local actors. This is particularly threatening for LGBT+ organisations, which often rely on funding from abroad, especially in a hostile domestic climate.
As they devise joint strategies to overcome the pandemic, while negotiating the next MFF, EU member states should make sure to allocate adequate funds to the Rights and Values programme. For what civil-society organisations contribute to our societies, even an ambitious plan of tripling the programme budget would be a bargain—even when resources are stretched.
Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris and founder of The Good Lobby. Szymon Ananicz is senior expert and advocacy officer at the Stefan Batory Foundation.