The Civil Society Forum in CEE will provide the opportunities for NGOs from CEE countries to come together, share experiences and discuss the future – working on solutions, ideas and strategies. The first edition of the Forum will start through a broader introduction on the political and economic context of the CEE societies. Findings of recent comparative policy research carried out in ten post-communist countries will be presented and the participants will be invited to reflect on a series of essential questions.
In addition, the participants will share their own reflections on the development and impact of the economic crisis in Central and Eastern Europe, advancing hypotheses as to its effect on civil society infrastructure, governmental policy and philanthropy in general.
Date: November 27th- 28th, 2014
Venue: Bucharest, Romania
"Civil society activities are essential for a mature democracy, the respect for human rights and the rule of law. Such activities enhance political accountability, stimulate and expand the space for discourse on societal choices and strengthen the consensus for a pluralistic society. By contributing to a more open, participatory and dynamic democracy, a lively and vibrant civil society is also conducive to tolerance and reconciliation. The involvement of civil society organisations in the pre-accession process contributes to the quality of and public support for accession-related reforms.
A culture of acceptance and appreciation of the role played by civil society need to be in place to allow civil society organisations to engage in an effective policy dialogue. Public consultation on policy initiatives and draft laws should become the general principle. The access of civil society to government support is frequently hindered by a lack of transparency and poorly developed allocation criteria.”
(Comunication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council COM(2010) 660 final. Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2010-2011)
The development of a strong and active civil society was not included among the official criteria for accession (political criteria). Nonetheless in time the European Union came to emphasize the role of civil society (in particular of a strong and democratic NGO sector) in building stable and healthy democratic societies prior to the accession of CEE countries to the EU. This element has become visible both in various official documents (i.e. progress reports) and in actual policies (through the various funding programmes dedicated to or involving CSOs/NGOs). While the approach remains visible in the relation of the EU to third countries (particularly prospective new member states), it is rather absent from the European domestic sphere. The assumption that EU member states are stable democracies with long(er) tradition of civil society participation and checks and balances of power is at present more fragile, with younger democracies (such as CEE member states) in a worse context. It seems rather strange that, given the emphasis on the political conditionality in relation to third countries, there is no Community competence in the field of civil society as “democracy and democratisation remain largely outside EU-level responsibilities” and are not covered by the acquis communautaire.
Although, particularly more recently, the role of civil society has been recognized in the process of EU policy formulation (for instance the European Economic and Social Committee includes CSOs as full consultatives entities, not only in the traditional role of social partners as employers’ associations and trade unions, but also under a specific third group “Various Interests” where a wide range of NGOs are included), it does not appear in the extensive legislative body of the European Union. EU is interested more in this consultative function of civil society than on the role or the development of the third sector in a member state. While this approach is in line with the essential features of civil society (independence, freedom of association, subsidiarity), EU has not attempted to provide benchmarks or standards for the role of CSOs in a modern liberal democracy (not event for prospective member states). “As a result, there are no binding Community rules on civil society and no acquis communautaire on the third sector”. While that omission does not seem to pose serious challenges to civil society in “older” democracies, the case can be made that it leaves CSOs in new member states vulnerable to negative influence from the political sphere and, consequently, that it actually weakens the democratization processes still underway in most of the post-communist countries.
The economic crisis and its various effects have a considerable impact on EU societies. Old weaknesses are resurfacing and new challenges are coming out of the crisis. Democracy (under its various older and newer historical models) is under pressure as citizens demand change. Civil Society Organizations are themselves affected by the economic, political and societal transformations. It is an excellent time to discuss and revisit the role and mission of civil society organisations.