The EESC recommends measures against EU countries with authoritarian governments and proposes to have undemocratic political parties excluded from the European Parliament

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has taken a strong stance against increasing attempts to undermine the functioning of Europe’s democratic civil society organisations and is calling upon the EU to employ the EU Treaty to the fullest against Member States which succumb to authoritarianism.

In its recent strongly worded opinion “Resilient democracy through a strong and diverse civil society”, the EESC warned that considerable political forces were now at work against liberal democracy in Europe, with an ultimate goal of destroying the EU. Although mainly belonging to right-wing extremist movements and parties, in some Member States these groups are already in government.

“We are deeply concerned that a transformation of political systems in Europe has begun with a trend towards ‘illiberal democracy’. Reforms in some Member States are designed to hinder the effective participation of all citizens in political decisions and legally guaranteed framework conditions for civil society are being hollowed out,” said the rapporteur of the opinion Christian Moos.

The EESC said it encouraged all Member States to respect the EU’s values, as laid down in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, and to refrain from all attempts to establish an illiberal democracy. Article 2 values include the rule of law, respect for human rights and human dignity, freedom, democracy and equality.

“If Member States succumb to authoritarianism, the EU must employ current legal tools, such as the infringement procedures and the 2014 Rule of Law Framework, to the fullest,” the Committee urged.

It also stressed that “parties which turn against democracy should be excluded from their political group in the European Parliament.”

The opinion defines “illiberal democracies” as political systems in which democratically elected leaders restrict civic rights, civil liberties and the protection of minorities. Recent electoral successes of some extremist and populist political groups clearly point to their growing strength in Europe and to the fact that some citizens are losing faith in democratic institutions.

“We currently observe the trend of decreasing trust in the EU across the continent, coupled with escalating tensions with minorities, xenophobia, increasing levels of corruption, nepotism and weak democratic institutions in some countries,” Christian Moos said.

According to the opinion, the EU still lacked an appropriate mechanism to ensure the effective preservation of democracy and the rule of law in its Member States.

The EESC called for the establishment of a Democracy Semester and a European control mechanism on the rule of law and fundamental rights, together with a Democracy Scoreboard.

It was in favour of coercive economic measures for failure to respect EU values, but it emphasised that these cuts must not be at the expense of civil society and its recipients.

It called on the Member States to introduce tax incentives to support civil society in a way that does not erode fiscal justice and for increased support, under the new Multiannual Financial Framework, for civil society organisations that are committed to EU values in case governments reduce or stop their funding for political reasons.

Stressing the importance of civil society for the functioning of free and democratic political order, Mr Moos said it can only perform if supported by adequate funding and a strong social and political framework.

“An independent and pluralistic civil society is key in supervising and keeping the political institutions accountable and, as such, stands as one of the hallmarks of liberal democracy,” he maintained. “Instead, civil liberties and open civil society are now being challenged in many ways across the EU.”

A hearing held by the EESC in February as part of the preparations for the opinion revealed a sombre situation on the ground, with alarming reports from all sectors of civil society about their space being progressively and deliberately shrunk by policy makers.

A growing number of them were coming under different forms of attack in many EU countries. The attacks, described as “starve and strangle policies”, ranged from negative labelling, smear campaigns or the vilification of civil society activists and organisations in the media, cuts to their funding or their exclusion from important policy dialogues, to the questioning of human rights values and principles.

Another worrying trend is the emergence of a so-called “uncivil society” – a growing number of NGOs and forms of civic involvement that do not share European values such as human rights and the rule of law, promoting instead an undemocratic political order. Under this new scenario of “shifting of space for civil society organisations”, these new NGOs receive priority access to government funding.

In certain cases, accusations even led to the criminalisation of the defence of human rights itself, as was experienced by the CSOs that were rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. The most shocking examples were the killings of journalists in the EU, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria were all investigating allegations of corruption.

All this has contributed to the erosion of democracy, which for the first time in many years has actually reached a critical level in certain EU countries.

“Just a few years ago, we were all convinced that at the global level a space existed where human rights and the rule of law were respected, and that that space was here in the EU,” said the president of the EESC Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law, Jose Antonio Moreno Diaz.

“Instead, the governments of some Member States are now engaging in politics that are totalitarian and that undermine the rule of law and the values of the EU itself,” he concluded.

Last year the EESC set up a Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law to help defend the rule of law, human rights and the concept of liberal democracy. It organises fact-finding missions to EU countries, with a focus on those affected by an anti-democratic rift.