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Chapter 2: Current trends of democracy in Europe

“Democracy needs constant investment; it has never been achieved fully" - Roy Virah-Sawmy, Civitates

Democracy, as shows the quote, is more than just a term for describing how to organize a society, it also presents itself as an ideal for a better life, an utopia that we as a society must always strive towards. In years past there has been a perception that as Heather Grabbe put it, democracy was seen as unavoidable, and it marked the ultimate culmination of a process that all nations seek. Yet the past years have sadly proven this assumption to be misguided, countries that were previously held up as role models for successful democratic transition, have now been branded as so called ‘autocratizers’. The world has trended further away from democracy embracing more authoritarian governance, prompting institutes such as Freedom House to reference 2020 with the title ‘dropping the democratic façade. Research institutes such as Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy have raised the alarm concerning the democratic backsliding of these countries. Especially European Countries such as Hungary and Poland, that were earlier held up as examples for how to transition to a democratic society. Yet this trend of democratic backsliding has not been taking place in the traditional way we picture misuse of power. Within the EU, there has been no secret police enforcing draconian laws or a president ruling by decree, merely paying lip service to the idea of free and fair elections. This was illustrated most pointedly stated by Head of International IDEA's Europe Programme Sam van der:

“It is driven by populists who use the instruments of democracy, winning elections, having control over parliament, even using the constitution as it is to hollow out democratic institutions" In Hungary, the ruling party of Fidez have been able to seize greater control over society by introducing legislation that on the surface appears to prevent unwanted foreign interference in the country’s democratic system by creating new oversight commissions for media companies and for judicial appointments, yet removes the ability of either to act as effective checks on the government’s power and influence. Poland too has showcased prominently the risks of one party gaining too much power. They managed to leverage their election wins to issue judicial reforms that allowed for partisan control over the appointment and dismissal of judges. 2020 in particular helped to illustrate how European politicians have taken advantage of a crisis in order to leverage greater control over society. Covid has demonstrated how crises allow for state of emergencies and executive orders that put the guardrails of democracy to the test. We have seen how checks and balances in the form of judicial oversight and parliamentary inquires, such as Czech judges declaring the state of emergency in the country illegal, being pushed to the limit. The crisis has exasperated an existing trend and has allowed would-be authoritarians to seize greater control of key institutions under the cover of public safety. This phenomenon of democratic backsliding is not exclusive to countries such as those that are already famous for their democratic deficits. The Covid-19 epidemic has allowed for a decline in democracy in countries within western Europe, particularly Portugal and France. The Economist’s Democracy Index downgraded the two countries from their previous status of ‘full democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’. This helps to illustrate the rule of law and the rights of individuals are at risk even in countries with respectively strong democratic institutions and traditions. This demonstrates that the modern threats to democracy are more nuanced than what may be initially thought. The epidemic has given governments a mandate to limit the freedoms of citizens, the task for us as civil society organizations is in how we are to approach these new challenges, how do we help to find a that concerns and threats to balance between public health and fundamental values that ultimately does not weaken our rights? This requires a new approach reflective of these changing and new dichotomies. This part will reflect on these threats towards democracies. Through contributions from our partners, we hope to show you not only the threats Europe faces to the fundamentals of our democracies, but also how we as civil society can turn the page. Only by realizing the true scale of the issues we face; can we collectively stand up against them. The contributions in this report will help to highlight the need for us as collective democratic societies to never falter in our efforts to promote democracy, if there is one lesson that has been gleaned from the past decade, it is that democracy must never be taken for granted so that we may never lose it.

"This phenomenon of democratic backsliding is not exclusive to countries such as those that are already famous for their democratic deficits"


- Actions undertaken as part of the democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland

By Regitze Helene Rohlfing. PhD Fellow at Centre for European Politics (Department of Political Science) & iCourts (Faculty of Law), University of Copenhagen

Hungary and Poland have come to represent a depressive democratic trend. The Fidez government of Hungary and the Law & Justice government of Poland - countries who were both granted EU membership in 2004 based on their democratic reform efforts - have in the last 5-10 years actively taken a U-turn on democracy. This is increasingly referred to as democratic backsliding. Backsliding is affecting a country’s democracy on different levels but a growing concern is the consequences it has on civil society – the network of organisations and movements distinct from government and the private sector – and the civic space, which is shrinking with an alarming degree and speed. The civic space is the operational space where civil society works on shared values, interest and purposes to hold the state accountable, participate in politics, shape public debate and express needs and opinions.

In the following, I will outline the government’s employed methods that are causing the civic space to shrink. I describe the methods in a broader framework of democratic backsliding and discuss how the methods have not just led to a smaller space available but also to a change in the values and organisations occupying the space.

Democratic backsliding as a term has been increasingly used in the last couple of years.

It frames a trend of democratically elected governments using the constitutional and legal framework to dismantle the very same democratic system that put them in power. This is a global trend, but Hungary and Poland stand out in a European context. Backsliding is marked by an incremental process specifically targeting the ‘liberal element’ of democracy, in effect stripping it down to ‘nothing but elections’. In Hungary and Poland, the governments have especially targeted the judiciary and the part of civil society, which is promoting human rights and democracy, working for transparency and accountability and /or grounded on values opposite to the government. I call this the government-critical parts of civil society. With serious attacks on the judiciary and civil society, democracy is in risk of being hollowed out. In a liberal democracy, the judicial systems work as a check-and-balance against the executives and is in place to ensure people’s right, while civil society serves as a watchdog and a sphere where people can entertain those rights. While the judiciary is of paramount importance for the backsliding discussion, the focus is here on civil society, as it at times seems forgotten in the discussion. The backsliding has led to a limitation on civil society’s capacity to function and perform, meaning that the operational space for civil society is severely limited, in effect making it increasingly difficult for civil society to act against the backsliding actions of the governments. But how are the governments shrinking the operational space of civil society?

Methods of shrinking civic space vary and are highly context dependent, but it is possible to group them in two overall categories; formal and informal. Where formal methods are of legal, bureaucratic and regulatory form, informal methods take the form of more discursive means and a ‘chilling’ of certain freedoms incl. freedom of speech, association and peaceful assembly. Chilling of rights happens when coercion or threat of coercion, such as harassments or threat of lawsuits, cause individuals and organisations to hesitate in their exercise of rights for fear of repercussion. Where amended or new repressive laws are easily visible, it can be more difficult to detect informal methods, as they for instance targets individuals and thus requires these individuals to be vocal about it. For an overview of the methods, see table 1. In Hungary and Poland, civil society has experienced both formal and informal methods.

Table 1: Formal and informal methods of shrinking civic space. The methods are executed by the government or government-loyal actors, such as the media or GONGOs and PANGOs. The methods have different degrees of effect on the civic space dependent on the context and how they are employed.

Since 2012, funding in Hungary, from the National Cooperation Fund, has been allocated increasingly selectively, limiting funding to the government-critical parts of civil society. New laws, such as Act V of 2013 on the Civil Code and Act CLXXV of 2011 on the Right of Association, Non-profit Status and the Operation and Funding of Civil Society Organisations, have further created bureaucratic hurdles on e.g. registration procedures and the bar to claim ‘public benefit status’. Where these laws might seem to apply broadly to all of civil society, a new law from 2017 - The Law on the Transparency of Organizations Supported from Abroad - and the Anti-NGO bill from 2018 are concretely stigmatising the government-critical parts of civil society by introducing further bureaucratic obstacles and criminalizing organisations assisting refugees. This includes the introduction of a punitive tax of 25 pct. on funds received by organisations working on such matters. In addition, since 2013 the government-critical parts of civil society have increasingly witnessed smear campaigns and harassment, including unlawful surveillance and police raids. It is also argued that organisation such as the Civil Összefogás Fórum and Alapjogokért Központ have been. purposefully established to counter the work and narratives of the government-critical parts of civil society.

In Poland, increasing bureaucratic hurdles have been implemented since 2015 in order to exclude the government-critical parts of civil society from the process of drafting laws and from general cooperation with policy-makers. The 2016 dissolvement of The Council for Counteracting Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and The Human Rights Protection Team has concretely limited organisations’ work on these matters. Funding possibilities for the government-critical parts of civil society have also been limited due to changes in the process of distributing funds. Further deterioration of funding has been put in place with the introduction of anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering regulations in 2017.

In addition, with the creation of the funding-distributing National Freedom Institute, it has become possible for state authorities to sweep powers over organisations. Since 2016, there has also been an increased criminalisation of anti-government protests and the 2017 amendment to the Law on Assemblies effectively placed a ban on counter-demonstrations and made it possible to give preference to demonstrations organised by state or religious institutions. It is further feared that the 2018 amendment to the law on the National Remembrance Institute will be used against organisations who are voicing critical opinions about the government.

"With serious attacks on the judiciary and civil society, democracy is in risk of being hollowed out."

Like in Hungary, the government-critical parts of civil society has increasingly experienced harassment, unlawful surveillance and raids of offices as well as physical violence targeting individual members. Lastly, smear campaigns, such as the 2016 October smear campaign, have also increasingly attacked the government-critical parts of civil society. The outlined methods show that the governments are actively engaged in a shrinking strategy targeted the government-critical parts of civil society. Figure 1 further shows how the methods employed through the years in combination have caused the civic space to shrink, as indicated by Coppedge’s degrees of repression. The consequences of this will be discussed in the following.

As figure 1 shows, Hungary and Poland has gone from almost no repression to increasing repression of the civic space in the last 10 years.

This is a consequence of the methods outlined in the previous section. But the civic space has not just become more scarce, it has also changed in character. As discussed, most of the actions undertaken by the governments aim at the government-critical parts of civil society. As a result, many organisations working against the governments and/or on human rights, democracy and transparency issues have met fierce opposition, in some instances resulting in organisations ceasing to operate entirely. In addition, the governments’ funding and support of government-friendly organisations, so-called GONGOs or PANGOs, means that an increasingly bigger proportion of the Hungarian and Polish civil space is occupied by organisations loyal to the values of the governments. In consequence, the civic space is moving from representing traditional pro-democratic and right-based norms to more conservative and illiberal values.

This changed political topography has two overall effects. Firstly, by packing the civic space with GONGOs and PANGOs, the governments can make it appear like there is still a vibrant civil society at play, which can help thwarting off critique from e.g. the EU. Secondly, with the limited space available to the government-critical parts of civil society, there are few left to challenge the governments’ attacks on democracy. This is in many ways also the aim of shrinking the civic space. By getting rid of critical watchdogs and replacing them with loyal supports, it becomes possible for the governments to further dismantle the democracy. A shrinking civic space is therefore not just a consequence of democratic backsliding but is also enabling further backsliding. This is why it is important to extend support to the targeted parts of the Hungarian and Polish civil society.


- Challenges and recommendations

By Christian Franklin Svensson (Ph.D.), Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg University, Denmark

Scholars, artists and writers are globally threatened by imprisonment, torture, capital punishment and 'disappearance' in their countries of origin. Civil society organisations like Scholars at Risk, International Cities of Refuge Network, Artists at Risk and Reporters Without Borders are largely responsible for initiating support to these individuals and for giving attention to the current state of freedom of expression and human rights globally. Prevalent themes include the benefits and challenges of encountering new cultural settings in host countries; the inbetween position of simultaneously being a personally persecuted migrant and a privileged intellectual invited to a host country; motivations to continue their work despite obvious danger to oneself, family, friends and colleagues.

The civil society initiatives exemplify global initiatives that are locally rooted whilst transcending territorial boundaries. The civic space relates to the UN’s global goal no. 10, which aims to promote social, economic and political inclusion irrespective of age, gender, disability, ethnicity and economic status. In addition, no. 16 aims to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national and international agreements. Furthermore, The UN Declaration of Human Rights contains the right to communicate one's own opinions and freedom of expression, including the right to participate in cultural life and scientific development.

Because nation-state institutional power does not always guarantee autonomy for individuals, civil society organisations are often the main stakeholders in securing participation in democracy as well as social commentary. The organisations thus provide an important facilitating role in order to establish relations between national and local actors and also between different sectors and the target group. Initiatives differ quite a bit, as some are of a long-term nature, whilst others are in a more investigative phase to solve pressing challenges, so how can both forms be accommodated? How to become more action-oriented, and how can better collaboration contribute to a focus on solutions and results?

Ideally, legitimate civic space occurs in collaboration between several stakeholders; in this case including the intellectuals themselves, who do not wish to be mere clients or users.

Collaboration is well under way, but not always on target. The diversity among stakeholders is the great strength in collaboration, but in addition to a common understanding of goals, there must be an agreement on how to solve specific problems as well as what actions are required. The role and function of civil society and stakeholders must be dynamic to adapt to the often changing circumstances in this complex field. Progression depends on the ability to act collectively all the way from the initial invitation of the intellectuals to the testing of new solutions and the subsequent accumulation of experiences and finally the implementation of innovation. This focus on collaboration can advantageously be facilitated by the civil society actors and be communicated to all stakeholders to ensure the unification of core competencies.

Civil society may well be starting up many of the interventions in this field but cannot implement them alone in the long run. The present collaborations demonstrate strong commitment among stakeholders in the initial phases, but over time the level of involvement often seems to transform. In my research in the Nordic countries, I have found that some CSO stakeholders feel that there is occasionally too little activity in especially the public sector. Clarification of mutual expectations is important, but this can be difficult as there is frequently uncertainty about roles, which is often related to challenges due to the bureaucratic legislatures that the public sector is subject to. More research and evaluation of results may accommodate these mechanisms in order to provide documentation.

Regardless of the challenges, it is important to venture beyond dissimilarities in order for problems to be solved in unison and to focus on tangible solutions. The CSOs are often the driving force, because they frequently have the most contact with the target group and thus the best sense of challenges and needs.

In this process, they are crucial in creating swift action and easily accessible knowledge. Overall, a greater visibility of effects can generate further action and commitment from all stakeholders.

Finally, although some initiatives ostensibly are creating little change, it is still success that should be communicated broadly in order to generate awareness about the impact of efforts and the plight of globally threatened intellectuals.

"The civil society initiatives exemplify global initiatives that are locally rooted whilst transcending territorial boundaries"


- Militant democracy and civil society in Germany

By Professor (MSO) Angela Bourne, Roskilde University

How should democratic communities respond in the face of threats to the rule of law and a shrinking civic space? This question is not new in politics or in scholarly debate. The courts and political parties have generally been seen as the key actors confronting this question, but more recent work aims to bring civil society into focus.

The work of Karl Loewenstein on the provocative idea of ‘militant democracy’ has long been influential. This tradition of scholarship addresses the fear – instantiated by the Nazi’s rise to power – that democracy may become the ‘Trojan horse through which the enemy enters the city’. Militant democracy entails legally authorized but exceptional restrictions of certain basic rights – particularly those of association and expression – to pre-emptively marginalize those who threaten to undermine liberal democratic institutions and values. It typically includes measures such as party and association bans, limits on provocative speech (such as Holocaust denial) or displays of extremist symbols (such as the Swastika). Militant democracy has constitutional backing in some of the most established liberal democracies – notably Germany and is seen by the European Court of Human Rights as compatible, under certain conditions, with the European Convention of Human Rights.

Nevertheless, many practical and principled objections have been raised about militant democracy. Militant democracy justifies use of repressive measures against those exercising their ordinary political rights. It thereby creates the possibility that measures purportedly protecting democracy in fact undermine the very quality of the democratic system they aim to defend. There is also the risk that militant democracy will be applied arbitrarily. Another problem is that militant democracy may be an unsuitable response for contemporary challenges to rule of law and incursions into the autonomy of civil society. In Europe, these challenges often come from populists who claim to better represent the democratic will of the people better than the elite, albeit through illiberal means. There are few extremists of any significance who openly aim to replace liberal democracy with a dictatorship. Furthermore, in important cases, populists are not opposition parties that can be banned or marginalized. Many populist parties govern.

In this context the work of scholars proposing a more broadly defined strategy of ‘democratic defence’ may be more insightful. This strategy has often been described as more ‘tolerant’, ‘accommodative’ or ‘persuasive’. It is more inclined to consider a role for political parties and civil society in confronting the dilemmas of promoting liberal democratic institutions and values than merely leaving it in the hands of the courts. For example, Stefen Rummens and Koen Abts develop a ‘concentric containment’ model for ‘defending democracy’ where the informal public sphere outside of government should be one of inclusion and understanding of new ideas. They argue this is the place where the concerns of those who might support populists can be discovered and where participation in politics, debate and persuasion might build a stronger democratic ethos among citizens. It is only when those seeking to undermine rule of law or the autonomy of civil society approach the seat of power that more repressive, militant measures should be complicated.

"Civil society actors can engage those challenging the rule of law and the autonomy of civil society in a variety of different registers"

Finally, the study of civil society responses to populist parties in Europe point to both ‘intolerant’ and ‘tolerant’ modes of engaging with populist parties. Intolerant ‘social combative’ strategies, treat populist party as a ‘threat’, undeserving of the normal rights and privileges granted to parties in liberal democracy. For example, the Alternative for Germany has struggled to find venues to hold party conferences and undertake ordinary party business in some parts of Germany. More commonly, civil society organisations undertake tolerant ‘social persuasive’ strategies, which treat populists parties as they do other political opponents, despite fundamental disagreement with that party’s policies or behaviour. This strategy aims to convince populist parties or their supporters to change their views and can include public demonstrations, boycotts, civil disobedience, information and consciousness raising campaigns. They may involve exclusively local actors or transnational networks. A recent example from Italy is the ‘Sardines’ movement which emerged in Bologna in 2019. It packed city squares in protest at the policies of the Liga’s Matteo Salvini and other rightwing groups.

Civil society actors may lack the legal authority and political power of the courts, public prosecutors and political parties. Nevertheless, civil society actors can engage those challenging the rule of law and the autonomy of civil society in a variety of different registers. Civil society actors can create practical difficulties for the organization and communications of those who do this, challenge their moral authority and legitimacy, and pressure others with more formal power to do so on their behalf. In relation to populist parties, we can evaluate the effectiveness of civil society initiatives by looking at their ability to constrain those who succeed in capturing control of public authorities, or challenging political ideas and political cultures supportive of populist party agendas.


By Jakob Erle, Director of International Academy for Education and Democracy

Adjectives are often added to the word democracy. Direct democracy, representative democracy, liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, deliberative democracy, parliamentary democracy and so on. This is a misunderstanding. Democracy is one. The adjectives are ways of underlining or defending particular aspects of democracy - to get an upper hand in the interpretation, but this undermines democracy, because power and action comes from unity. We need to be united in our diversity.

Democracy comes from ancient Greece, the word has two parts - demos = people and kratos = power. It’s the power of the people. It is enabling common action in relation to threats or challenges. Democracy is about unity of the citizens even if they have great diversity and disagreements. This collective power is essential for the survival and positive development of community.

The European Union treaty has its provisions on democratic principles in articles 9 through 12. Article 9 relates to the fundamental equality of the citizens. Article 10 states that the Union is founded on representative democracy, with direct representation of citizens in the European Parliament, Member States represented in the European Council. Article 12 describes the way national parliaments participate in consultation and ensure subsidiarity to keep all decisions as local as possible.

"Participation is weak and very often token. This undermines the European Union at a time when strength is needed"

Participation is well described in article 11, which establishes the obligation for the institutions to give citizens and associations the opportunity to make their views known and have dialogue on these in relation to all areas of Union action. The EU institutions are likewise obligated to maintain open, transparent, and regular dialogue with civil society, as well as to carry out broad consultations with parties concerned - to ensure that the Unions actions are coherent and transparent. Furthermore, to give more direct participatory access to citizens it is established that one million citizens can submit a proposal for legal action of the EU. This is not about accommodating the emotions of the citizens, this is a sine qua non to have strong institutions, power power ultimately comes from the will of the people.

Constitutionally there is no problem with participation in the European Union. The treaty has a great balance between the rights of the individuals and the representative power of the parliament as well as the governments of the member countries, and it includes the participation of civil society and the role of national parliaments taking account of subsidiarity. Sadly, the reality is quite different. Participation is weak and very often token. This undermines the European Union at a time when strength is needed. As individuals, local communities, states we need strong and relevant action at the European and global levels to meet the huge challenges before us. The world as we know it will change radically within the next few decades. The actions we take now will be decisive for the kind of future we will have, paradise or hell.

Institutions need to act decisively to deliver on article 11 of the treaty if the article is to have any real meaning. To recap:

  • Institutions must give citizens and associations the opportunity to make their views known and have dialogue on these in all areas of Union action

  • EU institutions are obliged to maintain open, transparent and regular dialogue with civil society and carry out broad consultations with parties concerned to ensure that Union action is coherent and transparent.

  • One million citizens can submit proposals for legal action of the EU.

The European Union and its institutions and agencies can not expect civil society and citizens to come visit. Most institutions are in Brussels, and the agencies are placed in the member countries. If you are a citizen interested in environmental issues and live in Palermo it does not help much that the environmental agency is placed in Copenhagen 2.800 km away. To give citizens and associations the opportunity to make their views known and have dialogue can only happen if they are invited - and that can only happen in a meaningful way where the citizens live and work. As it is now the 27 EU commissioners visit member countries once in a while, including dialogue meetings. That is a good thing - but with around 450 million citizens this is only a token. Real dialogue needs to happen and that is a totally different story. It’s a huge operation that has been in the treaty for more than 15 years, but has not been delivered on. The infrastructure for this kind of work is present in many if not all EU-countries e.g. in the form of civic education, folk-high schools etc. but the union needs to invest in real presence in this infrastructure, combined with strong mechanisms for aggregation of the dialogue, for representation of the views of the citizen in the Union.

Civil society and citizens have the task of participating: bringing their knowledge, experience and convictions into the dialogue to ensure the development of a better, more sustainable, world. The responsibility of contradiction - but also listening. Humans are born with two ears and one mouth, so individuals as well as institutions should listen twice as much as they talk.

National governments have the difficult obligation of enabling the open, transparent and regular dialogue between the EU institutions and the citizens and civil society. This is a challenge, This is exactly the same dialogue they need themselves, with the same constituencies so obviously there is a competition for the scarce resource of attention. But the participatory dialogue is needed - at all levels, local, national, European. And if this is done in a sincere way by all parties involved it will give more power to everyone, power does not need to be a zero sum game.

Opening up for real and strong participation is essential to have a stronger European Union - and for having stronger nations as well.


– A global megatrend

By Peter Christiansen, Secretary General & Sara Brandt, Policy Advisor on Civic Space and Human Rights at Globalt Fokus

Protest movements on the rise

We are living in unprecedented and challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic, increasing inequality, climate and environmental changes and democratic backsliding are just a few examples of an ever-changing reality. Simultaneously, we are also witnessing a truly global megatrend: an increase in protest movements in opposition to the new reality. At the same time, we also see more coordinated and calculated attacks on citizens and democratic freedoms from governments using the pandemic as an excuse to silence voices of dissent.

A recent study from Global Focus shows that the amount of protests has grown with an annual average of 11,5 % from 2009 to 2019. In other words, in the last ten years, political protests have become more widespread and more frequent. The size and frequency of these protests surpass historical epochs with mass protest such as the late 60s and late 80s. Compared to earlier, the protests are more fluid, informal and community-oriented and not so much a response to global trends but rather to local injustice. The new activism is just as much about culture and the values ​​of society, as it is about more classic case-oriented advocacy. Systemic corruption, economic inequality and austerity, discrimination and marginalization, injustice, human rights violations and the need for political reform are some of the causes of protests we have seen around the world. The root causes of these global protests suggest they will continue and likely to increase in 2021 and beyond.

The word “protest” is widely defined, but we draw on this definition: “[the] continuous […] gathering of a group of individuals committed to using non-violent tactics to effect some political, social, cultural or economic change that diverges from mainstream or extant political positions or practices”. We acknowledge that gatherings can exist in both physical and online space and therefore gatherings are understood as “public and physical as well as online”.

Within and close to the EU, we have also seen a rise of protest movements. In Poland, feminist movements organized mass-protests against the anti-abortion laws and the rise of autocratic institutions, in Belarus, citizens joined mass-protests against President Lukashenko and his decision to run for President in 2020, in Czech Republic, protests were held against Prime Minister Andrej Babis facing criminal investigations over fraud and in Hungary, citizens have protested against a crackdown on fundamental freedoms, independent institutions and separation of powers. Common for the protests in these countries is governments’ attempt to violate human rights and democratic freedoms.

Crackdown on protest movements:

With the rise of protest movements, we have simultaneously seen how governments and autocratic leaders have learned from each other to restrict and crack down on the movements. Six overall structural factors that undermine the longevity of protest movements include: 1) Excessive use of physical force against protest movements, 2) Arbitrary arrests of activists, 3) Legal restrictions on the freedom of assembly, 4) Governments' negative communication about protest movements, 5) Restrictions on independent observers and journalists, 6) Government infiltration of protest movements.

Groups of people that already are discriminated against and excluded from society experience double layers of crackdown in and around protests. In Egypt, female protesters were, during the revolution in 2011, in an act of defamation, accused of being sex workers on national TV because they camped out on the square where the protest took place. Those facing double crackdown also includes people already facing discrimination due to either their sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, being part of an indigenous group, belonging to a religious or non-religious minority etc. These groups are more often denied from permits to protest peacefully, face defamation and increased police brutality and attacks from counter protesters including gender based violence.

While the Internet and tech in general have been enablers for fast mobilization and documentation of violations, it has also been used by authoritarian leaders to repress movements through surveillance, censorship and internet laws restricting freedom of speech and manipulate public opinions about them. Protest movements and human rights activists are therefore forced to think more creative than just using social media to mobilize large crowds.

The EU and civil society should support protest movements

Given how central protest movements are to bring about changes in society and holding governments accountable for human rights violations, they must be supported, protected and seen as key in collaborations for change going forward. The European Union can play an important role if it started engaging in this work and civil society must rethink and reevaluate their support for protest movements to be true allies and supporters.

Leaders of protest movements have called for strategic planning and organization as ways in which civil society can better support them. They also point to the need for greater criticism from international actors when governments restrict freedom of assembly and exercise excessive power. This shows that there is a clear need for increased dialogue and cooperation between protest movements and international actors who could potentially provide various types of support.

While some donors have supported protest movements, we see more reluctance than willingness to truly support and protect protest movements. This is likely due to the unstructured nature of most protest movements that do not have a single organization or entity leading the work and therefore doesn’t live up to the donor traditional donor requirements. However, such expectations are out of touch with the strength, agility and power of protest movements; it is exactly due to their loose structure and opportunities for all people to engage differently that they are successful.

"Since civil society’s most important role is to bring about positive change in society, collaborating with protest movements is key"

Therefore, EU aid must look beyond the traditional forms of aid and instead provide flexible support that is unpredictable in nature but brings about opportunities for much bigger impact. We recommend moving away from a project-based model that does not allow sufficient flexibility to collaborate in changing environments where protest movements and civil society organizations can quickly respond to crisis situations and arising opportunities. There should also be support for cross-border alliance building between actors and different thematically focused groups. EU’s foreign policy should support protest movements by criticizing EU governments and other governments that crackdown protest movements.

EU Delegations around the world should develop the skills of employees in order to better support protest movements by attending court hearings when protesters are wrongfully accused, criticize crackdown on freedom of assembly and online activism, as well as, supporting safe spaces at EU Delegations for protest movements in danger to meet. The EU should furthermore work towards a complete ban against the export of surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes and make the procedures for the approval of exports of surveillance technology more transparent.

Many civil society organizations have collaborated with protest movements all around the world and been important stakeholders for change. However, a great number of civil society organizations have not yet done so. This is likely also due to the unpredictability that does not fit well with the requirements that civil society organizations must live up to towards donors. Additionally, there might be reluctance to collaborate with protest movements that are often a target of crackdown by governments. But since civil society’s most important role is to bring about positive change in society, collaborating with protest movements is key. This could entail providing legitimacy and positive exposure to protest movements, exchanging experiences on digital security, organization, leadership development, documentation of violations, advocacy, alliance building and facilitating access to international institutions and ensuring international criticism of violations against protest movements. It is additionally important to respect the premises of the protest movement without an expectation that they should become organizations or other formal institutions. Their agility and local ownership is the guarantor of their ability to create societal change.


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