The state institutions should ensure that the proposals of the new legislation are in line with international standards for freedom of association, assembly and expression. (this refers mainly to the problematic provisions within the Draft-Law on Lobbying and Draft-Law on Public Gatherings).
The basic freedoms of association, assembly and expression were legally guaranteed, and generally protected and enjoyed in practice by everyone. However, the potential threat to the principle of freedom of association by some of the provisions in the Draft-Law on Lobbying is still present, due to the unclear provisions on the definition of what lobbyist represents, and which activities are considered as lobbying. By this, the key principle of the LAF – participation in public life is at risk, according to which CSOs can freely express and promote their views and opinions on issues of their interest; start initiatives and participate in public opinion formation and policymaking. The failure to protect this principle, might e.g. prevent CSOs to engage with the Parliament and its work. When it comes to the Draft-Law on Public Gatherings, by the end of 2019, an extensively amended and restrictive version of the law was prepared (minimum of 50 people to hold an assembly, expanding the list of places where gatherings are restricted, prohibition for participants to cover their faces and head, and regulation of the time for holding an assembly from 6 to 23 h), without consultations. After reactions from the public and CSOs on social media, the Government withdrew the law.
Thus, there is a need for all of the state institutions to ensure that the proposals of the new legislation are in line with international standards for freedoms of association, assembly and expression. Namely, the Ministry of Justice established a working group on the Draft-Law on Lobbying, yet the possibility for a contribution towards the draft-text was mostly around technicalities, rather than substantial discussion concerning the problem being solved and its impact on the civil society. Thus, the Ministry should include a wider debate on the Draft-Law of Lobbying, and further investigate the problem that is trying to solve, and ensure that the principles of the freedom of association are protected and enjoyed. Furthermore, considering the regressive provisions proposed within the Draft-Law on Public Gatherings from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and the lack of collaboration with civil society, this can be seen as an ongoing threat to freedom of assembly. Namely, the existing legislation on public gatherings is solid, and other than a few changes to further ensure the enjoyment of the right in line with international standards, it should remain as such.
The relevant state institutions should without delay comprehensively reform the state funding for CSO.
Few positive developments concerning the state funding for CSOs took place. Namely, for the first time, high-level efforts were dedicated to reforming the existing model of state funding. These efforts were clearly expressed by the then-Prime minister Zaev at a national conference organized by MCIC. This was also encouraged by the memorandum of understanding between the Government and FOSM to work on the public funding reform for CSOs, which later resulted in analysis and draft recommendations for the state funding model. During the year, certain state institutions that allocate funding have undertaken steps to improve different aspects of the procedure and to increase their transparency and accountability (increased number of open calls, availability of information concerning awarded projects to CSOs). Specifically, the General Secretariat of the Government for CSOs for 2019 introduced expert commission and oversight of two members of the CSO Council, for the funds they distributed to CSOs, as well as conducted a consultative process on funding priorities for 2020 with wider CSOs with the support of MCIC.
However, despite the expressed willingness of the Government, the reform of the system for state funding for CSOs has progressed slowly. Namely, there was a delay in the preparations of the recommendations for a model and the consultations with civil society started in December instead of September. Thus, many of the ineffective parts of the existing system still maintained. The available data show a decrease in the total state funding amount planned for CSOs for 13% for 2019 compared to 2018. State funding is still almost a non-recognizable source of income for CSOs and is accessible only to a limited number of organizations. The income from games of chance and entertainment games has not increased yet and is shared among very few organizations. Then, funding from the General Secretariat of the Government for CSOs continues to cover numerous areas with insignificant amounts of funds. There was also no progress in terms of providing CSOs with institutional support. Still, there are no opportunities for multi-annual financing, nor is there co-financing for EU and other projects. These are the main aspects of the state funding reform that the Government should focus on in future.
There is a need, without delay, that the key Government fund allocating institutions finalize and adopt a comprehensive reform in a participatory manner, based on the analysis and recommendations that are already available. The reform should include increased amount of state funding for CSO (including the increased individual amount of grants). This can be done by ensuring available data that at least 1/3 of the total annual income of CSOs should come from state funding (within three years should reach 30 million EUR for wider CSOs). The Law on Associations and Foundations offers the grounds for the development of such provisions. In addition, this must come in a separate budget line for associations and foundations and not those for other non-profit entities. It is important that long-term funding and institutional support become available, as well as co-funding of activities supported by other donors. The funding should have an adequate geographical distribution. All of this should be regulated through a standardized procedure to increase transparency, effectiveness and accountability of the distribution of funds.
The Government should implement the standards of involvement of CSOs in lawmaking and policy creation process for all legislation and consistently across all state institutions. Participation should start at an early stage, with adequate access to information and time for a quality and substantial response, and provision of feedback.
The significant involvement of CSOs in public policy creation and law-making processes continued throughout 2019, via different forms of inclusion (electronic consultations, working groups, consultations, etc.). During the year, the CSOs were involved in the preparation of certain laws important for the operation of CSOs such as the: Law on the Fight Against Corruption, Law on Information from Public Character, Law on Youth, Law on Free Legal Aid and Law on Public Procurement. Civil society was successful in its advocacy efforts to bring along the adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Law and the Law on Termination of Pregnancy. The publishing of the deadlines for electronic consultations increased, and so did the abidance by them. Namely, 49,6% of the total number of draft laws were consulted via ENER, and for 96,4% of those, the minimal deadline of 20 days for consultations was respected. Within the consultative process, CSOs were still faced with significant shortcomings. There were cases of bypassing CSOs when it comes to issues such as rule of law and anti-corruption (Law on PublicPprosecution, etc.). Still, the lack of adequate access to information and substantial consultation persists.
Thus, there is a need for a future upgrade of this positive trend of improved openness and appreciation for the involvement of CSOs, by making sure the standards apply for all legislation (e.g. even those that are considered politically sensitive Law on public procurement). Also, there is a need for a standardized application by all institutions, and not just for the few of them which stand out with their cooperation. Even though certain ministries are closer to their constituencies due to their nature of work (e.g. MLSP, AYS, etc.) there is still a need of ensuring that rules apply for all. The good practice of using ENER as a platform for electronic consultations and respecting the deadlines should be further supported and improved. Finally, the results from the survey clearly point out to the need to match this increase of cooperation with increased effectiveness of consultations in terms of the necessary preconditions that CSOs should provide quality input to the process, such as adequate information, quality and trust in knowing that their contributions to the process were taken into consideration.
The Council should dedicate most of its sessions to influence institutions to implement the priority areas for sectoral development as per the Strategy, and to start, without delay, direct communication and consultations with other CSOs. In addition, as a consultative body, the Council should reconsider the legality and effectiveness of adding a task to nominate civil society representatives in different bodies and events upon request from state institutions.
The Council for Cooperation with and Development of the Civil Society has continued to effectively function throughout the year, focusing on issues of importance to the civil sector. By holding a total of ten sessions, it exceeded the legally set minimum number of four sessions per year, for which the agenda and materials are publicly available upfront. Almost at each session, the Council has placed certain recommendations and/or requests for different institutions. All of those placed to the Unit for Cooperation with NGOs were accepted, together with others made to several other institutions and implemented promptly. Yet, one of the most important tasks concerning the broader reform of the state funding for CSOs, which was increase of the amount distributed from the Government Secretariat from approx. 194,000 to 971,700 EUR was not considered.
Certain challenges to the effectiveness of the Council were noted. Firstly, the Rules of Procedure of the Council were changed twice, including a disputable and legally ungrounded decision for the Council to add to its list of task the mandate for execution of requests from government bodies (such as a request for nominations of representatives of CSOs in bodies and events). Secondly, the Council fails to effectively consult with CSOs at large, as less than a third (26.4%) of the CSOs that responded to the survey were consulted for certain issues. Thirdly, the regular participation at the sessions of both the CSOs members and state institutions was a challenge, and when it comes to participation of other CSOs, outside of the Council, only two representatives of CSOs took part (one from the organizations members of the Council), and one independent expert. When it comes to regular CSOs members’ participation at the sessions of the Council, some representatives were not present at the sessions.
Thus, the Council should continue the good practice of sharing materials and information and organizing regular sessions. The Council should dedicate most of its sessions to influence institutions to implement the priority areas for the development of the sectors from the Strategy, as these are issues where the sector wants to see progress and engagement. Also, there is a need for direct communication and consultations with other CSOs. Some of the ideas provided by CSOs from the survey, on how the Council should engage with CSOs, is done throughdirect emails and phone communication, particularly with those outside Skopje, through workshops, info-bulletins, open sessions, social media, other communication tools , periodical meetings with CSOs on different topics, invitations extended to relevant CSOs at particular sessions for certain issues. Also, as a consultative body, the Council should reconsider the legality and effectiveness of adding a task to select and nominate civil society representatives in different bodies and events upon request from state institutions. Namely, since this task is not stipulated in the Decision for establishment of the Council, there is no legal base to add one. There is a need for building trust and cooperation with wider civil society organizations. Yet, it seems that this step takes away a large chunk of the power of participation from the CSOs and puts in the Council’s hands on how to decide on the process and to organize it.