In her 2023 State of the Union address, Ursula von der Leyen failed to acknowledge civil society’s crucial role, exposing a gap in EU democracy. While the EU has recognised civic space, issues like protest rights remain neglected. Blind spots persist in policies, like the rule-of-law reporting cycle, which offers limited insights into civic space challenges. The Defence of Democracy package and AI Act overlook civil society concerns. A dedicated EU civil society strategy is needed, ensuring civil dialogue, monitoring tools, and protection for rights defenders. Prioritising civic space in funding and policymaking is essential for the EU to safeguard democracy effectively.

In her final State of the Union address before the 2024 European Parliament elections, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed several issues, from climate change to competitiveness, from gender equality to enlargement, and from geopolitics to migration. Yet, worryingly, the terms “civil society” and “civic space” were completely left out of her address, while “democracy” was mentioned only fleetingly. Von der Leyen’s failure to recognise the importance of civil society and civic space highlights a blind spot in the European Union (EU) institutions’ current approach to democracy.

Aarti Narsee
Aarti Narsee

While the EU has put civic space on the agenda in the last few years, the right to protest and access to civic space for excluded groups remain overlooked. And although the EU has increasingly acknowledged the democratic and societal role of civil society through its narrative and sectoral policies, the union’s approach to the growing challenges faced by civil society remains reactive and piecemeal. Additionally, in the absence of a clear strategy for civil society, EU legislation has contributed to putting pressure on the space for civil society and to distorting its nature.

Von der Leyen rightfully identified that institutions need to “[earn] the trust of Europeans to deal with their aspirations and anxieties”, but she failed to capture the fact that building trust goes together with strengthening democracy and civic space. And to secure trust, the EU needs to deliver inclusive and coherent policies that leave no one behind and create an enabling environment for civil society actors.

If the EU is committed to strengthening democracy, especially given the upcoming elections and the future mandate of the EU institutions, it is crucial that the union shifts its approach to public policy to ensure it serves people’s needs and to push for stronger tools to tackle the ongoing assaults on civic freedoms. The only way the EU can overcome this blind spot is to prioritise civic space by putting forward coherent policies aimed at supporting, empowering, and protecting civil society.

Challenges to civic space across Europe

Both globally and in the EU, democracy and civic freedoms are under threat. Two telling trends demonstrate the internal threats to democracy in the EU: a series of recent electoral victories for far-right political groups in countries such as Finland, Italy, and Sweden; and ongoing pressures on civic freedoms in several member states.

Research by the European Civic Forum, a transnational network of over 100 nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) across Europe, and the CIVICUS Monitor, a data platform that tracks and rates civic space, confirms that civic freedoms and democracy are in decline in the EU. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, the top three restrictions in the EU in 2023 were intimidation, censorship and detention of protesters, while the right to freedom of peaceful assembly has been repeatedly targeted year on year. In addition, the enabling environment for civil society is constrained by funding hurdles and limited opportunities for participation and structured dialogue with policymakers.

Worryingly, even countries that are regarded as stable democracies with an enabling environment for civil society are facing major challenges to civic space. Civic freedoms in France were significantly contested in 2022 and 2023. The country’s so-called separatism law requires any association that applies for public financing to sign a “contract of commitment to Republican principles”. This law has increased the powers of administrative authorities to impose sanctions on associations and dissolve those they deem to be acting against the principles. Thus far, authorities have withdrawn public funds for several climate rights and feminist associations; dissolved some organisations, such as the Antifascist Group of Lyon and Surroundings and the Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia; and threatened others with dissolution for allegedly failing to comply with the law.

In one example, the association Femmes sans frontières (Women Without Borders), which helps victims of domestic violence and migrants, was accused of “not respecting Republican values” because its director, Faïza Boudchar, wears a veil. Since 2021, the department of Oise has questioned the Republican values of Femmes sans frontières and retracted its funding. In another case, on 21 June 2023, the French government issued a decree that dissolved the environmental movement Les Soulèvements de la Terre (Earth’s Uprisings) after Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused the group of staging violent actions during a large demonstration in the western town of Sainte-Soline against the construction of giant reservoirs. A day before the announcement, counterterrorism officers took members of the movement into police custody, and several activists from the group face criminal charges in relation to the protest. The Council of State, France’s highest administrative jurisdiction, later annulled the decree dissolving the movement.

In addition, ongoing protests against pension reforms and police violence have faced disproportionate restrictions. There have also been concerns about surveillance ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in France, after the government introduced the Olympic and Paralympic Games Bill, which includes security measures through the use of various tools of intrusive algorithmic surveillance in public spaces. The final text of the bill excluded some of the most worrying elements.

Regarded for many years as a stable democracy, the UK has seen some notable declines in civic freedoms in the last decade. The government has passed a restrictive protest law that gives the police in England and Wales more powers to crack down on demonstrations. It has also put forward several proposals to clamp down on strikes, environmental rights protests, and the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Although Britain is no longer a member of the EU, it is important to pay attention to these worrying signs from a country that has long inspired good practices, especially in the context of a regional and global democratic decline.

Restrictions on civic freedoms in Spain have also intensified. Despite attempts to reform the so-called gag law of 2015, the legislation has been used to target protesters and journalists. Additionally, vague amendments to the Criminal Code relating to public disorder may lead to the criminalisation of political dissent and pose further threats to protests. Environmental movements, housing civil society organisations (CSOs), the LGBTQI+ community, and people of colour remain targeted by police measures, sanctions, and restrictions.

In addition, 2022 was defined by the CatalanGate political scandal, which involved cases of severe espionage and mass surveillance schemes against figures in the Catalan independence movement, including the location and interception of calls and messages, the use of spyware, the physical trailing of people, and the installation of localisation devices in cars. In one example, undercover police officers infiltrated two pro-independence youth organisations. In November 2023, after four years of a secret judicial investigation, the Spanish National Court announced that 12 people were under investigation for terrorism offences in connection with their alleged participation in the 2019 mobilisation and protests in Catalonia as part of the Democratic Tsunami movement.

Other EU member states are displaying early warning signs of a further downward trend for civic freedoms. For example, in Germany, there have been recurring threats and attacks on journalists by the authorities and far-right protesters as well as disproportionate responses to protests.

Most recently, public authorities in several member states have imposed restrictions on citizens who express solidarity with the Palestinian people. This includes disproportionate measures such as the pre-emptive banning of protests as a risk to “public order” and “security”; the use of excessive force and detention of protesters in several countries, among them France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Poland; and the conflation of legitimate criticism of the Israeli authorities with anti-Semitism, with a chilling effect. Individuals have faced repercussions for speaking out, including dismissal, disciplinary action, or the threat of deportation if they are foreign nationals.

Those who advocate for environmental rights have faced challenges in numerous member states. In Austria and Finland, police violence during protests has particularly affected climate activists. In April 2023, the Italian government proposed a law to criminalise damage to cultural and artistic goods, which would significantly restrict acts of civil disobedience by environmental rights activists. In Germany, police raided the homes of members of the Last Generation climate activism group and placed it under surveillance.

The criminalisation of solidarity with migrants has intensified: the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants recorded that in 2022, at least 102 people were facing criminal or administrative proceedings in the EU for such acts of solidarity, including in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, and Spain. The European Network Against Racism has documented ongoing threats and violations experienced by racialised human rights defenders and those who work on racial inequality, migration, and non-discrimination in countries like Cyprus, France, Greece, and Portugal.

Shortcomings in the EU’s approach

Five years ago, there was little knowledge in the EU of what “civic space” meant; now, the concept is recognised at the European level and has been placed on the policy agenda. In March 2023, the EU Council approved conclusions on the role of civic space in protecting and promoting fundamental rights in the EU. The commission has put forward legislative tools such as the directive to counter strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP), which is aimed at protecting journalists and human rights defenders from abusive litigation, and a directive that will regulate conditions for non-profit associations to operate across borders.

However, there are significant blind spots in the commission’s approach to civic space and civil society. An illustration is the commission’s annual rule-of-law reporting cycle, a mechanism that aims to promote the rule of law in all EU member states and “prevent challenges from emerging or deteriorating”. Within this process, civil society has an opportunity to update the commission on national developments in relation to the rule of law and democracy. Yet, the reports marginalise civic space and do not adequately investigate the challenges that civil society faces, with little understanding of its multifaceted role in the rule-of-law ecosystem. Each report’s analysis of civic space is limited to one or two paragraphs. In addition, the right to protest does not fall under the scope of the reporting, nor do systemic human rights violations.

What is more, given that civic space developments can unfold rapidly in some member states, as documented in France and Greece, the process provides little opportunity for an early-warning mechanism for civil society to alert the commission directly to rapidly emerging concerns. While the reports make recommendations, they are neither timely, concrete, nor specific enough to push member states into taking action to improve the situation.

The shortcomings in the commission’s approach to civic space and civil society are also illustrated in policies that have been put forward to strengthen democracy. The commission’s Defence of Democracy package focuses heavily on threats from outside the EU and on some symptoms of weakening democracies while not paying enough attention to civic space restrictions in member states. Despite widespread concerns expressed by hundreds of CSOs in consultations, meetings, and letters, the commission adopted a foreign funding directive as part of the package in December 2023. Instead of protecting democracy, the directive will be deeply harmful to it and will fail in its stated intention of exposing covert foreign interference in policymaking. The one positive element in the package is the inclusion of a recommendation on civic engagement. Although non-binding, the recommendation is a step in the right direction as it encourages member states to take measures to protect, support, and empower civil society to ensure a thriving civic space and recommends ways to establish structured dialogue with CSOs in the policymaking process.

Meanwhile, the EU’s draft Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act is currently being finalised in the legislative process. This legislation, which aims to restrict the development and deployment of harmful technology, is in principle a positive step, and the EU is leading the way globally in its aim to create boundaries for AI. However, the proposal put forward by EU legislators once again ignores many of the demands of civil society and fails to fully safeguard fundamental rights for all, the rule of law, and democracy. Civil society has raised several concerns about the impacts this legislative tool could have on civic space, especially on excluded groups. They have flagged specific dangers to the freedom of peaceful assembly, liberty, the right to asylum, privacy and data protection, the right to social protection, and non-discrimination when such technology is deployed by the authorities and companies.

These examples expose several gaps in the commission’s approach to policymaking, which could be strengthened if civic space and civil society were more central in the commission’s understanding of democracy in practice.

Why the EU needs a civil society strategy

The EU must fine-tune its approach if it wants to strengthen its tools and processes for a vibrant European democracy and build on existing progress. The 2024 European Parliament elections are a key opportunity to turn the tide of shrinking civic space, but the EU can only do so if it commits to support, empower, and protect civil society. A broad coalition of CSOs has launched the Civil Society for EU campaign manifesto, which calls on European political parties and groups to take concrete steps to make civic space and civil dialogue central topics in the elections. In the next five years, the future parliament and commission must create an empowering environment for civil society by developing an EU civil society strategy and a civil dialogue agreement.

The agreement should ensure that civil society has a real seat at the table to contribute meaningfully to all steps of policymaking at both the EU level and the national level through regular, transparent, and meaningful civil dialogue. This will ensure that civil society is a permanent, empowered, and engaged actor in future European governance.

Through a dedicated civil society strategy, the EU should strengthen the existing monitoring tools at its disposal. This includes bolstering the recommendations in the annual rule-of-law reporting cycle and creating an early warning mechanism so that civil society can publicly raise concerns and alert the commission about worrying civic space developments.

The union should also protect civil society and human rights defenders against attacks by devising an EU mechanism to allow civil society to report on assaults and negative developments on an ongoing basis. Such a mechanism would go a long way towards prevention by providing direct assistance to civic actors and rights defenders and ensuring accountability when attacks take place. Overall, these tools would promote a proactive rather than reactive approach to dealing with declines in democracy and civic space.

Finally, for civil society to continue its work in protecting civic space, the EU should aim its funding policies at nurturing the democratic role of the civic sector through multi-annual, consistent, and flexible structural funding. Overcoming this blind spot means that the EU must meaningfully prioritise civic space and civil society both in its policies and in practice. It is only with this approach that the EU can truly defend democracy.


Aarti Narsee is an intersectional feminist who works as a Senior Policy and Advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum, a pan-European network that brings together nearly 100 associations and NGOs across 29 European countries. In her former role, she documented civic space violations in Europe and Central Asia as a civic space researcher for the CIVICUS Monitor. She holds an MSc in gender, policy, and inequalities from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Aarti is a former South African journalist, who provides analysis on gender and LGBTQI+ rights, intersectionality, and civic space.