The Commission has today published its annual report on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The report specifically looks at what Member States and the EU are doing to support civil society organisations and rights defenders such as national human rights institutions, equality bodies and ombuds-institutions. Overall the report shows that while the work of civil society organisations and defenders of fundamental rights is essential for the practical application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, further effort needs to be made across the EU to support them, including by improving the environment in which they operate.
The report in detail
- The role of civil society organisations and rights defenders: the report shows how important they are to protect and promote fundamental rights and that their impact is acutely felt during times of crisis. This year in response to the war in Ukraine, for example, they have been instrumental in countering disinformation, mobilising support for people fleeing, and documenting atrocities, as well as relaying vital information about the needs of specific groups such as women, children, people with disabilities, LGBTIQ people and Roma.
- How they are protected: many Member States have measures in place that safeguard civil society organisations and rights defenders. In recent years, some Member States have also improved support with national action plans. Over the last year, the Commission has also taken a number of steps to improve their protection with an initiative on the European Media Freedom Act, a Recommendation on safety of journalists and a package of legislative and non-legislative proposals to fight abusive litigation (anti-SLAPP). However, there is still a need to improve protection across the EU. The figures show that 61% of organisations face obstacles limiting their ‘safe space’, while 43% face verbal (43%) and physical attacks (15%), including online (19%). The annual Rule of Law Report has also identified issues related to registration and operation requirements.
- How they are funded: the report shows that some Member States recently increased support, including to compensate for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, a lack of funds remains a major challenge for almost half of civil society organisations, particularly for those working on the rule of law and democracy as well as on fundamental rights more broadly. The EU budget for the period 2021 – 2027 makes available €1.55 billion for projects that protect and uphold fundamental rights – the largest amount ever provided for by the EU budget. In the last two years, €131 million supported almost 1500 organisations working on EU rights and values in every Member State.
- How they are included in policy-making: the report shows that many Member States consult civil society organisations and rights defenders in the preparation of legislation, for example via open public consultations. There are several examples of Member States setting up permanent channels for dialogue such as dedicated platforms and networks. At the EU level, civil society actors remain major partners in the preparation of EU initiatives and the Commission has opened several channels for dialogue with specialists and on specific topics with dedicated platforms and fora. At the same time, civil society organisations and rights defenders report various obstacles to their inclusion at the national level including limited access to documents and information, as well as a lack of civil dialogue more generally. The Fundamental Rights Agency also finds that across the EU, minorities and vulnerable groups are not sufficiently consulted.
The Commission encourages other EU institutions, Member States and stakeholders to use the report to discuss its findings and develop a dialogue on civic space in the EU. In particular, the Commission encourages the European Parliament and the Council to have a dedicated discussion on the findings of the report.
To support this debate, the Commission will launch a targeted dialogue with stakeholders through a series of thematic seminars on safeguarding civic space, focusing on how the EU can further develop its role to protect, support and empower civil society organisations and rights defenders to address the challenges and opportunities identified in this report. These seminars could examine themes such as protecting the digital civic space, how to better target EU and national funding to support CSOs and rights defenders, and ways to empower the civic space to bolster our democratic resilience. The outcome of this debate will be presented and discussed in a European high-level roundtable meeting in 2023.
On 2 December 2020, the European Commission presented a Strategy to strengthen the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU, including a commitment to produce annual reports on the application of the Charter based on specific themes. Last year’s report focused on the challenges in protecting fundamental rights in the digital age.
Over the last year, the European Commission has also worked on raising awareness about the Charter itself. A campaign launched in 2021 drove over 700,000 clicks to the campaign website and generated hundreds of thousands of video views, along with multiple conversations on social media. The success of the campaign, which was one of the deliverables of the 2020 Strategy, underlines the high interest Europeans have in knowing more about their fundamental rights and how to make sure they are being respected.
For More Information
Civil society is a vital pillar of European democracy. These organisations are key to implement EU policies, also in the area of fundamental rights and to bolster democratic resilience. Sustained effort is needed by all of us to ensure civil society organisations and rights defenders are protected, supported, empowered, and have a safe environment to operate in. The upcoming Defence of Democracy package will be the occasion to review our actions under the European Democracy Action Plan, including on supporting civic space and citizen participation.
The importance of a flourishing civil society to uphold fundamental rights in the EU cannot be overestimated. This includes the vital role it plays in holding goverments to account, which in turn is essential to protect the rule of law. It is not enough to simply allow civil society organisations and rights defenders to exist, they must be proactively supported, adequately funded, and consistently consulted throughout policy-making processes. As the report shows, there are gaps that need to be addressed in this regard. Based on these findings we must all renew our commitment to improve the situation over the next year.