We live in an era when the substance of democracy is being questioned.
In some places, democracy is being transformed into a plebiscitarian authoritarianism, where democracy is reduced to a ballot box, and where the state seeks to control society by curbing civil liberties - be it by subjugating the judiciary, taking control of the media, or by limiting space for independent civil society.
In these confusing times, we must not forget what constitutes the essence of democracy, its lifeblood.
It is the participation of citizens in decisions and law-making and their contribution to policy implementation. Only citizens, organised as civil society, can ensure that our democracy is vibrant and resilient.
It is civil society that teaches us how to participate in a democratic society. They show us how to conduct dialogue between differing, even conflicting views.
They build trust between individuals and social and political groups. They release the energy necessary to defend civil rights, to protect minorities and to ensure that no one feels discriminated against.
It is the civil society organisations (CSOs) that teach us a real lesson on how democracy should function.
“In these confusing times, we must not forget what constitutes the essence of democracy - its lifeblood. It is the participation of citizens in decisions and law-making and their contribution to policy-implementation”
Thanks to them, we become conscious citizens, aware of our rights and our value. This is a foundation of democracy.
But civil society needs funds to pursue its goals independently. This is why, at the European Parliament, we have been working for over a year to set up a new funding mechanism for CSOs who promote and protect European values, such as democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights, and social dialogue.
We adopted a resolution in April 2018 calling for increased funds for organisations operating at local and national levels.
Subsequently, we attempted to transform the Rights and Values (RV) Programme, proposed by the European Commission in May to serve precisely these purposes.
We suggested that a new strand of the Programme be set up: as a Union Values strand, which would support CSOs with an additional €850m in the post- 2020 multi-annual EU budget.
The proposal envisages an ‘emergency’ fast-track grant-making procedure in cases of gross deterioration of the rule of law in Member States.
It also calls for easing access to funding for grassroots initiatives, for which the bureaucratic burden related to EU grants was too heavy and cumbersome.
“At the European Parliament, we have been working for over a year to set up a new funding mechanism for CSOs who promote and protect European values, such as democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights, and social dialogue”
We are in favour of setting up programme contact points in each EU Member State. It is important that they provide impartial and competent guidance and orientation to grantees.
All of these solutions should be seen as our response to the concerns and requests of civil society throughout Europe.
The Parliament, as well as other EU institutions (including the European Economic and Social Committee) conducted thorough and in-depth consultations with civil society representatives operating both locally and on a European level.
During the negotiations of the RV programme in Parliament, I opposed linking the new financial instrument and the rule of law conditionality mechanism.
This mechanism would allow the transfer of funds allocated to a Member State under other EU instruments to CSOs if this country violated rule of law principles.
In practice, this could lead to a situation where, for example, structural funds would be redirected to CSOs.
I think this would create a risk of pitting citizens (the beneficiary of EU funds) against civil society.
The Programme, and civil society, should not be seen as the direct beneficiaries of deterioration of rule of law. Funding for projects implemented by CSOs should not come at the expense of, for example, infrastructure projects supported by the EU.
RV is a positive programme that should prevent the backsliding of democracy, rather than punishing those governments that do not comply with European values.
I am glad that the majority of MEPs shared a similar opinion and decided to reject the proposal in the final plenary vote.
There has been one further misunderstanding: the programme must not be seen as an instrument of promoting any one ideology, be it the liberal, conservative or otherwise.
It is about promoting democratic dialogue between all citizens holding very different world views.
It is about supporting the broad set of common European values to which we all committed a long time ago: human dignity, equality, democracy and the rule of law.
These values are inclusive in nature. Together they set the stage for every one of us, regardless of political affiliation and ideological preferences, to meet in mutual respect.
I am proud of this Parliament, and am personally extremely glad, that the overwhelming majority of MEPs appreciated the importance of giving an unequivocal support to civil society which advances European values.
I strongly believe that if these solutions are taken on board by the EU Council (the trilogue has just started), democracy in Europe will be substantially strengthened, and the grand European project will receive a much-needed boost.