Members of EPA, with the Romanian Civil Society Development Foundation implement a joint project supported by the Europe for Citizen program between September 2018 and February 2020. 


 

Background:

Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a vital role in upholding of European values on the local and on national levels thereby promoting the idea of European citizenship, and at the same time they also act as vehicles and channels of democratic participation engagement in Union-level policymaking. Thus, CSOs – both the European networks and the organizations working on the national and local levels – can be important allies of the EU institutions in implementing EU policies at times of growing Euroscepticism and anti-EU sentiments voiced by national politicians. Indeed, governments in some countries, particularly in Central Europe increasingly obstruct the free operation and effective contribution of CSOs through administrative measures, harassment and intimidation and even legal restrictions, as was recently stated by the report published by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in early 2018, among others. The worldwide phenomenon of closing civil space has during the past 5-6 years entered the EU through countries such as Hungary and the ‘bad practices’ seem contagious, spreading to Poland, Romania, Slovakia, etc., pointed out by various international surveys and comparisons (e.g. the CIVICUS Monitor).

The project addresses this trend of democratic backsliding and shrinking civil by building on two pillars: 

(1) by broadening the grassroots basis of civil society through mapping, training an mobilizing activist groups and movements (previously not involved in bigger networks) on the one hand, 

(2) and through linking the local level to the European by developing together the outlines of a comprehensive European civil society policy on the other. 

The project was launched with a kick-off meeting in November 2018, held back-to-back with the EPA Annual Meeting, together with friends and partners from our countries as well as the USA. During the preparatory phase, project partners mapped existing, but lesser-known local civic initiatives, employing the “snowball” method: they surveyed and/or met representatives of local activist and civic groups, engaged them through an initial personal visit, and built a database of their contacts. Summaries of these surveys for each participating countries may be found here: 




During spring 2019, a national training was held for the representatives (app. 35 participants at each) of these groups in all 6 countries on the public policy aspects of CSO work. The participants’ knowledge is subsequently be further refined through individual, distant learning via regular newsletters and resources. 


 

1) The first training was held in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia between 27 February-1 March

  1. Around 28 participants, representatives of civil society from around Slovakia, including Zvolen, Nitra, Bratislava and Banska Bystrica gathered for two days of presentations and discussions at the Matiej Bel University. Expert speakers discussed CSO communication and cooperation, disinformation and shrinking civil space. The agenda also included an evening panel discussion with Juraj Smatana, Daniel Milo, Juraj Rizman and Peter Terem open to the public which drew more than 40 people, mainly students of political science. 
 

2) The Hungary training was held in Budapest on 12-13 April

  1. Representatives of 16 local, 1 Czech, 1 Polish and 1 Romanian CSOs discussed the means and advantages of networking among CSOs locally. Trainers of the Civil College Foundation presented the basics of community organizing through interactive exercises, with special attention to “listening tours” (i.e. local needs assessments) and group building. An expert of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union provided a detailed overview of the rules and procedures of upcoming local elections, how and when active citizens can participate. Guest speakers from GlobSec Policy Institute (SK) and the Brasov Community Foundation (RO) provided insights into the situation of neighbouring countries. Finally, next steps of the project were discussed with the participants, who gave an overwhelmingly positive feedback of the previous two days.  


3) In Poland the training was held in Krakow, on 30-31 May

  1. The workshop titled "How to communicate the activities of social organizations and effectively engage people? ", took place in Krakow from 30 to 31 May 2019 in ARTzon, which is part of the 70-year old Nowa Huta Culture Center C. K. Norwid. At the event, a topic related to the condition of Polish civic organizations, in particular the ones acting for sustainable development, was discussed: what we can do together and how to encourage local communities to become more involved in our activities. During the two days, 13 speakers in total, including guests from Belarus, Bulgaria and Hungary contributed. The conference was attended by a total of 45 leaders and activists of social organizations from all over Poland: Warsaw, Gdańsk, Chrzanów, Trzebinia, Gorlice, and Staszów.

4) The training in Czechia took place in Prague, 18-19 June 2019

  1. In response to the growing attacks against non-profit organizations, signatories and supporters of the Strengthen Czechia initiative came together for a workshop and training organized by the NGO Development Platform, Spiralis and Nadace Partnerství, with the goal to link existing initiatives supporting civil society, to present relevant analyses and opinion polls, and to create space for non-profit organizations to work together.


On the first day, more than 60 representatives of national and regional non-profit organizations have become acquainted with new trends in working with the public, discussing the future of the non-profit sector and naming barriers in their daily work. See full event report here (in Czech).
On the second day, 20 representatives of local initiatives from rural areas and established  non-profit organizations participated in the all-day workshop led by Štěpán Drahokoupil and Petr Machálek, the OSF Foundation Advocacy Forum. Participants led by lecturers sought answers to the following questions: How do I make system changes to selected topics? How do you plan a strategy that leads to changes as efficiently as possible? How to change relevant legislation? How to involve the public? How to reach responsible politicians and politicians? Four working groups were formed, each of which was dedicated to the topic of its choice. First, the groups defined the problem, drew the problem tree, set the goal of advocacy and then created a map of key players, defined the target group, set the necessary steps to achieve the goals, and publicly presented everything.   
 
 


5) The workshop for Bulgarian civic activists was held in Plovdiv on 18th and 19th June

  • It brought together 36 representatives of 30 Bulgarian and 2 CEE CSOs from Romania and Hungary, in the city of Plovdiv - European Capital of Culture 2019. Within the 2 days of the event the participants discussed “Challenges and Success Stories of Civil Society Organisations”. 
  • Experts and speakers from diverse areas provided insights on some of the main topics of participation of citizens in public life which are currently in the focus of the Bulgarian society and CSOs, such as: access to information and justice; restricting citizen participation through amendments in the legal framework; distortion of news and propaganda around the National Strategy for the Child 2019-2030, with the respective public response and consequences; illegal amendments in urban Master Plans, affecting sustainable development planning; basic trends of Black PR vs civil society; challenges to NGO-managed social enterprises, etc.
  • Guest speakers from Fundatia PACT (RO) and Okotars Alapitvany (HU) shared their observations on the situation and work of civil sectors in Romania and Hungary, respectively. They emphasised the increasing government pressure and the reactions of civil society, as well as provided inspiring examples of top-down and bottom-up initiatives carried out by formal and informal groups in their countries, which raised public trust and support for CSOs and civic groups. 
  • The workshop also provided some space for practical learning and exchange on efficient communication of CSOs in their work, and on improving the knowledge of CSOs and citizens to identify problems in the management of public green spaces and cultural heritage. Besides, discussions addressed the environment in which CSOs work and exist, the resources, capacity and potential for CSO development, and opportunities for creative and efficient ideas for drawing public support and expanding public understanding of civic issues.
  • Some conclusions from group work tasks were: people in CSOs or informal civic groups oftentimes learn what it is and how one could be a “citizen” on their own or through collaboration with active civic groups. While this raises the number of active people, there is still a gap between the society at large and CSOs’ causes, which is a result of a predominantly passive and resistant-to-change social environment. CSOs need to work more intensely on the huge need to become closer to communities, to form stronger networks of social support and participation.
 
 

6) Summary: national workshop in Romania, 17-18 October

Romanian Civil Society Development Foundation organized the national workshop of Reclaim our civic space! project in Romania on 17-18 October in Bucharest with the title Civic Groups Strengthening Civil Society, attended by about 30 representatives of CSOs. The first day’s focus was on international trends thus, the annual Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia was presented (see below). Afterwards a group of expert panelists discussed successes and setbacks, as well as the challenges for civil society in Romania and the region.
The second day’s program highlighted intersectoral cooperation where civic groups, CSOs, donors relate to each other. A discussion was held on the current understanding of civic groups and organisations amongst their main potential partners, and two further workshops were organized for local CSOs with the following topics: the main needs shared by Romanian civic groups; Identifying realistic actions for stronger CSOs.

CSO Sustainability Index
 



As the key outcome of the Reclaim Our Civil Space! project, members of the Environmental Partnership Association launched and discussed the first draft of their Recommendations

The foundations behind the initiative justify the need in the document’s introductions – it reads: “… CSOs, community and citizen groups as well as social movements may be important allies of the European institutions at times of escalating tensions with minorities, xenophobia, increasing levels of corruption, nepotism and weak democratic institutions in some Member States.
In order to fulfill its democratic roles and functions, civil society needs an enabling environment to flourish. However, today contrary trends, the shrinking of civil space may be observed in more and more European countries, too, manifesting in vilification and smear campaigns, harassment and various legal restrictions hindering civic action. As Member States are largely free and have independent competence to design their own policies and strategies concerning civil society, EU institutions have very few effective instruments to counter the negative trends in spite of their concerns. 
At the same time, recent research shows that CSOs’ hope lies with the European Union both as a supportive political actor and an important funder of their activities. Admittedly, EU institutions have made efforts to counter trends to curb civic freedoms and to support those who uphold it both in the continent and beyond, however, as the ongoing negative trends show these have not yet been sufficient, and did not represent a systematic approach, rather a piecemeal, case-by-case reaction to developments. (…)” 
 
The draft recommendations were first introduced at the regional workshop in Varna between 7 and 9 October, held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Environmental Partnership foundations. The second day of the event, held with app. 40 participants, mainly representatives of rural CSOs from Bulgaria, focused on European issues, including information on funding possibilities in the 2020-27 EU budget (the Multiannual Financial Framework), and the lessons of the Monitoring Committees. In the afternoon, representatives of international organisations, including WWF and Green Policy Institute as well as the directors of the Environmental Partnership foundations showed examples of how civil society successfully mobilised European attention and support to local issues and struggles, including the protection of the Bieloweza forests in Poland and the solidarity action organised by the Civilisation coalition in Hungary. Our Brussels coordinators also gave a summary on current developments in the new European Parliament and the Commission relevant to civil society. The last day of the workshop focused on more practical, hands-on tools CSOs can use, including effective communication, the role of platforms an art in activism.
 
The recommendations were again presented and further discussed at the second regional workshop in Prague on 16-17 October titled 'Civil Society in the EU: Perspectives and challenges' co-organised by the Czech Environmental Partnership Foundation and Spiralis, OSF Foundation, CERGE-EI and the Strengthening Czehia Initiative.
The event was attended by representatives of Czech and European civil society organisations, as well as experts and active people involved in the development of civil society in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, France, Ukraine including the European Civic Forum, Transparency International and CEE Bankwatch. They discussed the most pressing threats to civil society in the European Union, and the proposed measures aimed at the EU institutions to ensure greater support or protection at transnational level. In addition, the state and challenges ahead of Czech civil society were presented with expert contributions from the Nonprofit Sector Research Center and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
 At the thematic workshops, the participants learned from practical examples how to promote the legitimate interests of citizens in various areas of life.  During the conference participants had the opportunity to realize that under the term “civil society” we can perceive every individual, not just non-profit organizations. It is important not to be skeptical and it is essential to be mutually informed - looking elsewhere allows us to perceive the events that take place in our countries with an open eye.
 
The last regional workshop took place on the sidelines of the international Human Forum in Slovakia which took place for the sixth time in Banska Bystrica on 27-28 November, this year under the auspices of the Republic’s President Zuzana Caputova. High-level attendees included the Ombudswoman, the regional governor and the mayor as well as representatives of the Dutch, Norwegian and US embassies. Panel discussions including CSO representatives and activists from Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia and Hungary discussed the potential and the outcomes of mass demonstrations in Central Europe, the problematic relations between politics and civil society as well as the role of local communities in activism. We invited organizers of mass protest from Poland (Marta Lempart) and Serbia (Miloš Injac), who were joined by journalist from Czechia (Jana Ustohalová) and Slovak sociologist (Alexandra Bitušíková). Organizers shared their experience with organizing protest and described harsh conditions they operate in. Representants from Czechia and Slovakia provided broader picture of situation in their countries, talking about possible motivations of citizens to join protest and impact of civil society on public involvement on such a scale. Speakers at the debate 'From NGOs to politics' Andrej Nosko and Juraj Hipš discussed whether is it problem if civic activist enters politics. This topic is currently very relevant in Slovakia, as newly created parties are full of former CSOs members. A new study analysing the Slovak people’s attitudes to democracy 30 years after the changes and the successful civic education program ‘Schools for Democracy’ were also presented to a mixed audience of app. 60 people.