“It tends to be taken for granted that civil society will provide a bulwark against the extremism in the EU. However, the pressures that are driving a polarization in society and causing a flight towards populist pipe dreams are also dividing families and friends. Civil society may indeed find itself be weakened as a force for tolerance and solidarity in Europe. In countries like Hungary, CSOs have a lonely struggle to survive and protect their integrity. The refugee crisis has diverted many CSOs energies and resources towards humanitarian ends. Continuing austerity in most countries has also seriously reduced grant aid and sponsorship for civil society activity”.

The CEE Civil Society Forum aim was to help strengthen democracy and protect essential values on which European peace and prosperity have been built: respect for human dignity, for diversity and inclusion. In 2016, in a context dominated by the rise of populism, narrowed or obstructed civic space, the role of the civil society at large is crucial. This year’s edition of the forum was very much focused on the challenges we are currently facing and which could the concrete actions, solutions, steps that we need to do to support the European project. The 2016 CEE Civil Society Forum brought, in addition to leading CSOs from Central and Eastern Europe, some of the most important European civil society networks and think tanks, representatives of the European Commission and European Economic and Social Committee.
Denisa Ionescu, ENNA’s SG, was one of the panelists from the “What support for civil society initiatives on democracy in Europe?” workshop. The discussions went around joint actions that can assist civil society in responding to the fragilisation of democracy at national level, possible sources of support – financial, political, organizational – for civil society initiatives (looking on one hand at donors’ role and possible grant aid and, on the other hand, at the role of EU level civil society platforms and pro-democracy organizations). The civil society organizations face challenging, hard times: either we’re talking about situations where they are being referred as “the enemy of the people”, or about the growing pressure on CSOs to “deliver”, to act quick and professionally in case of a crisis, where they are following their own mission, in an environment when less and less funding is available. Considering all these, now it’s even more important to work together, to be closer to the citizens, to monitor and defend the civic space in our countries, to have EU institutions more aware and committed to defend the fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy.
A call for participation to a broad-based campaign to support democracy in Europe has been launched at the end of the Forum; for this, a working document has been prepared and it has four main lines of action: 1. an overarching framework and a common banner for a concerted CSO campaign on democracy during the period 2017-19; 2. a series of ‘citizen democracy dialogues’ at local and national level, in as many EU Member states as possible, involving a wide range of stakeholders, to open up sensitive issues and debate problems with the state of democracy; 3. concerted advocacy at EU level in part to support effective democracy monitoring and robust use of the ‘rule of law’ instrument, but also to gain support for national and local level citizen initiatives and dialogue-oriented approaches more suitable to combat populism and nationalism; 4. joint planning primarily on democracy issues with relevant CSOs with a view to preparing cooperation with governments due to assume EU Presidencies in 2017-20.
The document can be read here.