New European Parliament think tank report calls for more support for EU civil society groups

Report comes in the wake of the launch of the conference on the EU's future which aims to put civil society at the heart of decisions on which direction the EU should take.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

17 May 2021

The report focuses on the current inability of charities, community associations and not-for-profit organisations to work freely in any EU Member State.

The report is published by the European Added Value Unit, a European Parliament think tank which carried out the work on behalf of the assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee.

It comes in the wake of the launch last week of the conference on the EU's future which aims to put civil society at the heart of decisions on which direction the EU will take.

German Greens MEP Sergey Lagodinsky, a vice chair of the Legal Affairs committee, told this website, “The parliamentary report confirms that associations trying to work across borders face legal, administrative and tax barriers and often work well below their potential. This is why we need a new ‘European Right to Associate’ – only then can a true European civil society thrive.”

He described the report, ‘A statute for European cross-border associations and not-for-profit organisation – European value added assessment’, as “a new milestone on our way to the new ERA (European Right to Associate) in the EU.”

The call for measures to facilitate cross-border work by non-profit organisations is also backed by Spanish Socialist member Nacho Sanchez Amor who also told this site, “At the grassroots level in Europe we have the idea of a European demos, of European citizens having rights but the EU hasn’t so far come up with a legal format for European citizens to do work as citizens at the European level, despite the evident need for this.”

“The parliamentary report confirms that associations trying to work across borders face legal, administrative and tax barriers and often work well below their potential. This is why we need a new ‘European Right to Associate’ – only then can a true European civil society thrive” Sergey Lagondisky MEP

At a hearing in the parliament, MEPs heard evidence from the authors of the report, Klaus Müller, of the European Parliamentary Research Service, and Helmut Anheier, of the Hertie School in Berlin and the University of California Luskin School of Public Affairs, Los Angeles.

Muller explained the three parliamentary actions at EU level that could “support the development of European civil society at the EU level with a special focus on association and not-for-profit organisations and their cross-border dimensions”

Also addressing the committee, Professor Anheier said, “The role of civil society organisations has been neglected by most legislators and most parliaments. There are indications that cross-border financial flows within the third sector are increasing – the same applies to cross-border memberships and volunteering and we have many cross-border regions where non-profits are involved in civil society activities.”

Further comment came from Gerald-Christian Heintges, a campaigner who has made the case for EU-wide legislation for over a decade. He said, “It’s really good news that we have this report but as the authors make clear, there is still much work to be done. I have always argued that we will need to carry out studies in each of the 27 EU Member States to better understand the current national laws with regard to not-for-profit organisations and I was pleased to see this as one of the recommendations.”

The report authors pointed to the “key barriers” that had blocked progress towards the emergence of European Community Associations including lack of a common definition of what a not-for-profit organisation is between the member states of the European Union.

The hearing heard that when COVID restrictions end, individuals and businesses will be looking forward to life returning to normal, including the suspension of border controls.

“It is high time that EU citizens and civil society enjoyed the same rights and freedoms as the private sector in what is supposed to be a borderless Europe” Roger Casale, secretary general of New Europeans

But, the hearing was told that for not-for-profit organisations such as Caritas, based in Freiburg or Médecins Sans Frontières in Geneva, or associations such as New Europeans, SOLIDAR and Volonteurope in Brussels, there will be no such easing of territorial restrictions.

It was said that charities, community associations and the whole not-for-profit sector in Europe will “continue to be held back” by the lack of a European statute allowing them to set up as a European Community Association with the right to work freely in any EU member state.

The hearing heard that this was “surprising” given the role that the community has played in combating the pandemic and supporting individuals, families and communities.

Roger Casale, founder and secretary general of New Europeans, a pan-European citizens’ rights movement, told the Parliament Magazine, “Now is the time for action on a European community association statute. The pandemic has reminded us how counter-productive border controls can be. It’s time that borders came down not just for individuals and businesses but for not-for-profits too.”

The campaign for a statute, he said, is a long-standing one and several previous attempts to secure a breakthrough have faltered.

But Casale said: “Civil society organisations that have shown a strong interest in finding a way forward for pan-European community organisations such as New Europeans, as well as Alliance4Europe, Citizens Take Over Europe, EU Democracy Lab and others will take encouragement from this report. There is clearly a long way to go still, but momentum is growing behind the campaign.”

“It is high time that EU citizens and civil society enjoyed the same rights and freedoms as the private sector in what is supposed to be a borderless Europe”, he added.

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