Health civil society engagement in a shrinking civic space

In a context of erosion of democratic processes and challenges to European democracies, civic space consequently finds itself in danger. As highlighted in several reports from the European Civic Forum, and as mentioned in rule of law reports from the European Commission, civil society organisations (CSOs) are facing a shrinking civic space, including within the EU. In light of the upcoming EU elections, this is a challenge that should be urgently addressed and kept high on the political agenda. More specifically, and as highlighted in the manifestos of EPHA, EU4Health Civil Society Alliance and Civil Society 4 EU, difficulties in accessing funding has been a significant barrier in CSOs’ activities. The topic has been addressed quite significantly in the last months, in the context of different events and legislative actions. 


A European Parliament report adding to this difficult context 

In January, a report was adopted by the European Parliament on the transparency and accountability of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) funded from the EU budget (A9-0446/2023). However, the implications of this report are quite concerning in terms of civic space, as highlighted by Civil Society Europe. Among others, the report targets NGOs on transparency requirements, hinting towards an increased risk, even though they are subject to the same financial rules as any other stakeholder groups. Civil Society Europe stresses that while transparency improvements are needed, this responsibility lies with the EU institutions and should be applicable to any beneficiary, as now this narrative can risk weakening the work of NGOs. 


Key discussions during the EESC Civil Society Week 

The issues of shrinking civic space and threats to democracy in the context of the upcoming EU elections were also actively discussed during the Civil Society Week at the EESC. The recent European Commission’s Defence of Democracy Package and its main issues were brought up during one of the sessions. Indeed, while the Package’s aim is to tackle foreign influence, promote free and fair elections, and foster civic engagement and citizens’ participation in European democracies, it can present several loopholes. 

It has been welcomed with mixed feelings by civil society and some policymakers, who fear that some elements aimed at addressing foreign interference might negatively impact civic space. It was argued, for instance, that the Package addresses only a very small portion of entities, focusing on foreign interference and overlooking influence and important challenges to democracy that come from within the EU as well. The discussion underscored the heightened risk of stigmatising registered entities benefiting from international funding, alongside the potential for authorities to exploit such information to suppress civil society. Hungary’s diminishing civic space and infringements on the rule of law were specifically cited as a forewarning for other nations. 

Throughout the event the need to develop a proper framework to monitor, provide structure and support civic space and civil dialogue was expressed. 


The case of health civil society 

Contributing to the shrinking of civic space, health civil society organisations have in the past years faced difficulties in accessing sustainable funding opportunities. After a risk of operating grants being removed from the EU4Health programme in 2021, they have then been available on an annual basis following strong advocacy from CSOs, through the EU4Health Civil Society Alliance. However, this annual basis still limits the capacity of organisations in planning their activities in the long term and ensuring their sustainability. At the end of 2023, it was announced that framework partnership agreement for 2025 and 2026 would be set in place, answering this strong call from civil society, providing longer-term opportunities of core funding. However, on February 1st, the Council voted to redeploy EUR 1 billion from the EU4Health programme, which is running until 2027. This cut could be detrimental to the development of EU health policy and could also contribute to health civil society organisations facing even more difficulties in accessing funding. Nevertheless, it remains unclear for now what the impact of these cuts would be. 

With these concerns in mind, and ahead of the European elections, we reiterate our calls for a strong EU health budget and a strengthened civic space for civil society to play their essential role in a vibrant EU democracy. 

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