Directions for EU Civil Society Support- Lessons from Turkey, the Western Balkans, and Eastern Europe

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February 26, 2020

The EU’s assistance for civil society partners in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and Eastern Europe needs to evolve in response to the more challenging environments activists in these countries now face.

As the European Union (EU) debates its new post-2020 funding instruments, EU civil society support faces a pivotal moment. The union has been fine-tuning this support in recent years and is now contemplating further reforms. Civil society around the world is undergoing far-reaching changes as new types of informal activism emerge, governments try to constrict civic activity, and digital technology has major political implications.

Against this backdrop, the analysis, developed by Carnegie Europe, to which among others contributed BCSDN, proposes ten practical ideas for how EU civil society assistance needs to evolve. It focuses on the countries that fall under the EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA)—Turkey and the countries of the Western Balkans—and the six states of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP): Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This research examines how EU funding mechanisms need to change and assesses whether current financing proposals are likely to be beneficial or damaging. It suggests how the EU can overcome the main challenges of supporting newer forms of activism. And it explores how the EU can best help civil society to resist the heightened repression it faces in most IPA and EaP states.

To improve its civil society assistance, the EU should: tie critical measures to civil society support; set minimum thresholds for mainstreaming; engage with unfamiliar civil society partners; define clearer rules on government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs); focus on systemic resilience; help local fund raising; widen support networks; better connect civil society to politics; assess the civil society impacts of other EU policies; and link civil society to foreign policy. Several factors make this an especially crucial moment for the redefinition of EU civil society support. Three general areas are relevant: the EU’s institutional cycle, operational tactics, and the wider political context.

The research numbers the reasons, such as: EU Leadership Changes; Operational Tactics, and the Wider Political context in order to explain why the redesign of civil society support is such an important issue for the EU relates to the union’s institutional cycle.

BCSDN Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Biljana Spasovska, discussing on Monitoring Civil Society Restrictions in The Western Balkans contributed in the paper.

Monitoring Civil Society Restrictions in The Western Balkans


The EU’s IPA is the means by which the union supports reforms in the Western Balkans and Turkey with financial and technical help. The IPA Civil Society Facility, launched in 2008, developed a framework for monitoring the enabling environment for civil society in these countries. Yet the EU has still not implemented consistent monitoring and reporting of all aspects of an enabling environment in the Western Balkans. The rigorousness of its monitoring varies from country to country.

In the absence of adequate monitoring, the EU failed to heed the early warning signs of emergent threats to civic space in the Western Balkans. The desire for convenient political messaging has often compromised the need for critical reporting on civic space. Only in 2019 did the commission note in its country reports and enlargement package—a set of documents explaining its policy on EU enlargement—that there was an increasingly hostile environment for civil society in the region.

The Balkan Civil Society Development Network’s monitoring has found that CSOs in the EU enlargement countries face three notable challenges. First, there are restrictions on basic freedoms and shrinking space for core CSO operations. Attempts in some countries to change key laws, adopt new security and anti–money laundering regulations, and employ burdensome registration procedures are affecting citizens’ freedom of association. As restrictions on people’s rights to assemble and protest are becoming more severe, governments are engaging in smear campaigns, exerting political pressure on critical CSOs, and establishing GONGOs that aim to undercut CSOs’ legitimacy.

Second, even where conditions are not completely restrictive, the environment is not conducive to CSOs’ financial viability and sustainability. Western Balkan civil society still depends heavily on donors; there is little local philanthropic culture and a lack of legislation that incentivizes donations and volunteering or provides favorable tax treatment for CSOs. Public funds for civil society bodies are either very limited or distributed in an opaque way. Many CSOs do not have the capacity, or do not meet the demanding criteria, to apply for EU funding—and many of those that are eligible for EU money cannot secure the required matching funds. Montenegro and North Macedonia have established public funding mechanisms that provide matching funds for EU projects, but such instruments do not exist in the other pre-accession countries.

Third, CSOs have limited involvement in decisionmaking. Dialogue between governments and civil society remains underdeveloped. Most governments across the region are still reluctant to recognize and treat civil society as a necessary and legitimate component of a democratic system. The European Commission has yet to take these constraints on civil society operations into account when planning its future civil society funding.

                                                                                                      Biljana Spasovska, BCSDN


The article concludes that in recent years, EU civil society support has improved in many crucial ways, and the union has maintained relatively high levels of funding. This record is significant in a period when other elements of EU foreign policy have drifted away from backing democracy and human rights toward a clearer prioritization of old-style security and realpolitik considerations.

The EU’s 2019–2024 institutional term will usher in changes to the union’s external financing instruments. Strong efforts will be needed to make sure civil society support does not slip down the union’s list of priorities. More positively, the EU could use the redefining of its financing to improve backing for civil society.

Three different kinds of change to CSO support are needed. First, the EU should make further valuable improvements to extend the kind of adjustments the union has already started to make in the last several years. Second, the EU needs to grasp the nettle of some difficult challenges facing civil society that it has so far failed to take on board. And finally, the EU should link its civil society support more tightly with the more political dimensions of its foreign and security policies. Taken together, these steps could help realize the EU’s numerous formal commitments to prioritize more clearly its support for civil society and place this support more firmly at the heart of the union’s foreign policy.

Read the full version here.

Source: Carnegie Europe

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