It is also claimed that national authorities do not “prioritise sufficiently” the funding of “vital” civil society tasks, such as monitoring and watchdog activities.
These are among the key findings of a delegation the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) sent to probe civil society rights in five countries: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Austria and France.
The focus was on areas of “particular” importance for civil society, including freedom of assembly and association, freedom of the media, non-discrimination and the rule of law. Governments in each of the five countries were given the right to reply although their responses have not been made public.
A report on the visits in 2018 and earlier this year, entitled "National developments from a civil society perspective", was debated at an EESC conference in Brussels earlier this week (5 November). The EESC delegation spoke to civil society organisations, media and legal professionals and human rights groups in each country.
Some of the fiercest criticism is reserved for Hungary whose government, led by Viktor Orban, has been at loggerheads with the EU over perceived civil and human rights abuses for some time.
The EESC report, seen by this website, states that “Civic space has been shrinking in recent years in Hungary and civil society organisations (CSOs) have claimed significantly fewer possibilities to carry out their advocacy activities.”
Limitations on freedoms particularly affect the media and academic world and the Hungarian government “seems to stigmatise those CSOs that carry out advocacy and watchdog activities.”
“What we need is an ambitious and comprehensive response to challenges to fundamental rights and the rule of law. This should concern every Member State, all EU institutions and civil society” EESC President Luca Jahier
It says, “Several participants said that the media was a propaganda machine aimed at controlling public discourse and that those who are critical of the government face negative treatment. CSOs raised concerns about the general decrease in support for human rights protection and non-discrimination, including in relation to Roma, disability and gender issues.”
“Participants indicated that there is a need to control the use of EU funds better to ensure that such funding does not end up abetting corruption.”
On Poland, the report says it has “become difficult to obtain permissions to march in favour of politically-controversial issues” and “public authorities refused to grant access to information and that ad revenue has been used as a tool to put pressure on the media.”
In France, freedom of association is facing “challenges due to lack of funding and attempts to stop or hinder activities through threats of legal proceedings, particularly for those providing assistance to migrants.”
The conclusion on the situation in Austria, meanwhile, is also critical, stating that CSOs have faced “severe cuts” and this has indirectly weakened the judiciary “with a significant impact on the length of proceeding for asylum applications.”
In Romania, CSOs have been subjected to a “negative image”, particularly those performing watchdog activities or criticising the government. “There is a “lack of transparency, adoption of legislation without consultation and pressure on the judiciary.”
The visits were organised by the EESC group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL). A similar fact-finding mission to Italy is scheduled for December and the group plans to visit all Member States in the next few years.
“Civic space has been shrinking in recent years in Hungary and civil society organisations (CSOs) have claimed significantly fewer possibilities to carry out their advocacy activities” EESC report
Commenting on the findings, EESC president Luca Jahier said, "What we need is an ambitious and comprehensive response to challenges to fundamental rights and the rule of law. This should concern every Member State, all EU institutions and civil society.”
He said that the EU's values could “no longer be taken for granted” as they were being “violated across the EU”, with media coming under attack, hate speech rising, independence of the judiciary being “compromised and civil society organisations and human rights groups stigmatised.”
"When democracy is in danger it is not only our institutions that are at stake: it is everybody, including civil society. By pointing out critical aspects of government action or policy, civil society helps to improve them. Governments and EU institutions have to welcome critical voices, and even protect them, because without them, dialogue disappears and this puts us on the road to autocracy.”
Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL) group president José Antonio Moreno Díaz said the report was not meant as a legal analysis or to “single out and criticise” any particular country but, rather, to highlight trends in fundamental rights and the rule of law in the EU.
He said, "We give an opportunity to members of civil society to be heard. Our mission is to bring to Brussels the voice of civil society working on the frontline. The facts and the data we have collected raise the question: when did it go wrong in the EU? How can we, in 2019, have governments that do not respect fundamental rights or the rule of law?”
“We need to reflect on this and we need to find concrete measures," he said.
Jacek Krawczyk, who heads the EESC employers' group, said, “The rule of law was important for the economy as a whole, and a precondition for the mutual trust on which the internal market relies.”
“The facts and the data we have collected raise the question: when did it go wrong in the EU? How can we, in 2019, have governments that do not respect fundamental rights or the rule of law?” José Antonio Moreno Díaz, FRRL group president
Oliver Ropke, who leads the institution’s workers' group, said, “Civil and political rights cannot be separated from social and labour rights, such as the right to strike and freedom of expression, which are necessary to fight for better working and living conditions.”
Meanwhile, a new report by the Open Society Foundations examines attitudes towards politics and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe, 30 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 revolutions.
The report draws on YouGov polling in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, and seeks to provide a snapshot of opinion towards democracy, the media and social freedoms.
The study says that in six of the seven polled countries – Slovakia (61 percent), Hungary (58 percent), Romania (58 percent), Bulgaria (56 percent), Germany (52 percent) and Poland (51 percent) – a majority of respondents believe democracy is under threat.
Three quarters of respondents in Bulgaria, (76 percent), over half of those polled in Hungary (52 percent) and Romania (54 percent), a third in Poland (34 percent) and a fifth of Germans feel elections are not free or fair in their country.
A majority of citizens in every country apart from Germany – where the figure is almost half – distrust the media in their country to report news in a fair and honest way. However, older people (those over 40) who remember the fall of the Berlin wall are generally more likely to say that media coverage has improved in the last 30 years.
A plurality of those polled in Hungary and Poland think it is likely the media in their country will no longer be able to criticise the government in ten years’ time.