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The EU regulatory environment for civil society has become disproportionately burdensome in recent years, but could that be about to change? Patrick Gibbels explores the impact of last week’s majority vote in European Parliament on new proposals to alleviate the regulatory burden facing nonprofits.
During recent years, the EU regulatory environment for civil society organisations has become disproportionately burdensome, and many in the philanthropy and civil society sector have had to deal with discriminatory measures, hampering their day-to-day operations. The crisis in Ukraine underlines the vital role of civil society for democracy. The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a report that seeks to alleviate this regulatory burden and its chilling effects on the sector.
Writing for EFA, I’ve highlighted in the past how legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation, and the introduction of consumer opt-in mechanism in European legislation, has significantly curbed the way in which charities and fundraisers can reach out to potential donors.
Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has created additional barriers to outreach as it made it impossible to physically approach donors and make collections or to organise events for some time. In fact, in a report, published in June 2020, the EU agency for fundamental rights found that 57% of civil society organisations, both at local and national level, said that they experienced the global clampdown on civil society to have either “deteriorated” or “greatly deteriorated” in light of the pandemic.
Against the backdrop of this report, the European Parliament’s committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE) tabled an own initiative report (INI) on the shrinking space of civil society in Europe in January of last year. Spurred by the recent aggressions against Ukraine, the European Parliament on Monday 7 March took stock of the role of civil society in dealing with the challenges and threats stemming from this crisis, which lead to an overwhelmingly positive vote in favor of the LIBE report (526 votes for, 115 against, 54 abstentions).
Hungarian Member of European Parliament and author of the Report, Anna Júlia Donáth, said: “Civilian helpers at our borders with Ukraine are asking us to support their work, while they are out there representing justice and a more humane approach, in line with the EU’s core values. They are asking us to defend them, so they can do their job undisturbed, and to protect them from oppressive governments who persecute them based on Russia’s example. In light of the war in our neighbourhood, Parliament’s call to set up a framework to protect European civil society is ever more important.”
By means of this own initiative report, the European Parliament calls on the European Commission to develop a number of things on behalf of civil society. The Commission is urged to adopt a civil society strategy that will protect the civic space by introducing minimum standards for the legal and administrative environment of civil society, as well as introducing a statute of European cross-border associations and non-profit organisations. The Commission is also requested to structure its monitoring and create a civic space index, based on existing frameworks for measuring civic space, which serve as a basis for the creation of a secure and enabling environment for civil society organisations.
Policies and practices instilling a chilling effect on civic space have been adopted in certain Member States with the aim of achieving self-censorship and deterring civic actors from exercising their rights.The report emphasised that for civil society organisations to thrive, civic space must be an enabling and safe environment free from undue interference, intimidation, harassment and chilling effects by both state and non-state actors.
The Parliament also urges the Commission to create sustainable and non-discriminatory access to resources. A lack of fairness in funding allocation and an excess of administrative burden have been identified as challenges faced by civil society organisations, as well as restrictive eligibility criteria. The Commission must set out conditions and procedures to ensure that EU funds designated to civil society, whether in direct or shared management, are only awarded to organisations that are strictly independent from any government and fully adhere to the EU values.
Last but not least, the Parliament suggests one of its Vice-Presidents is appointed to carry out a structured and open dialogue with civil society organisations. In this context, the Parliament calls on the European Commission to restore the balance between representatives of corporate interests and those of other interests. And now that the Parliament has approved the Report in its Plenary configuration, the Commission is asked to table a proposal for legislation.
This vote, together with the recent MEP call for legislation to be reformed so that nonprofits are on more equal footing with their for-profit counterparts, suggests a shift in attitude towards the sector – and greater awareness of its key role in strengthening Europe. EFA welcomes this change and the report by the LIBE committee, urging the Commission to take swift action.
About Patrick Gibbels
Patrick is EFA’s public affairs columnist in Brussels.
He is the director of Gibbels Public Affairs.
Follow Patrick @GPA_Brussels.
Read more from Patrick in our View from Brussels column here.
Main photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash.