Chapter 3: The navigation of civil society in times of increased pressure

Introduction As we have shown throughout the previous part, we see how democratic institutions, in particular through the use of legislation, has become a tool to weaken democratic guardrails. Citizens have borne witness to European governments using legislative initiatives to weaken existing civil society organizations. A prominent case for this is the “Lex NGO”- law adopted in Hungary that was ruled as a breach of the right to association as based in the EU charter of Fundamental rights by the European Court of Justice.

The law set strict requirements for NGO’s that receive funding from outside of Hungary in an attempt to starve government critical organizations, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, from funding. Civil Society is directly dependent on the rule of law, to continue to play a strong role in society. Without it we risk being replaced or shut down by arbitrary legal procedures whose anti-democratic intentions are disguised under the illusion of democracy. A lesson of the current times seems to be, that to continue defending the rule of law, we must bring the concept out of the far-off parliamentary halls in the various national capitals and into the living rooms of everyday Europeans.

“We have to find a way not only to protect the rule of law, but to explain it as well"

- Sam van der Staak, Head of International IDEA's Europe Program

In past years notions and terms such as rule of law were largely removed from the discourse of the public. Yet for civil society to effectively continue to represent society and its interests, it needs to be better at explaining its role and duties in society. Heather Grabbe made it clear in her chapter (1.1), that the role civil society currently plays is still enjoys broad support. The general population wants civil society to play a larger role, yet to do so civil society must be more inclusive and open, and better at explaining our role in society. If we fail to explain terms such as the rule of law, we risk further deterioration of our own standing in society.

“For the Orbans and the Kaczynskis rule of law is about accountability, so what they want to prevent are the mechanisms of accountability, vis á vis their own people"

- Louisa Slavkova, Executive Director of the Sofia Platform

By explaining the rule of law, we not only help to strengthen it by bringing awareness of its importance but also help to bring increased accountability to institutions. Civil Society has a role in holding government accountable, as they provide an important check on the powers of leaders that seek to pushback democratic norms. It is done not due to any inherent source of power, but by simply shining a light on their actions so that people can be informed about a government’s actions. We must continue to promote institutions and legal mechanisms that allow for greater degree of transparency throughout Europe.

Yet in order to understand these challenges we also need to understand the perspectives from our partners on the ground. It is not enough to simply talk about the theoretical needs of civil society without giving it a base within reality. To this end we have presented several cases outlining the challenges that civil society faces throughout Europe. From cases hindering the equal treatment of individuals, to those detailing the political culture in a given country, we hope to both shed a light on not only the negative aspects of our jobs, but also what works and the positive developments in an effort to share our experiences and those of our partners so that we can begin a process of building a more resilient and interconnected European civil society.

We also hope to present how a uniquely European perspective and network can help us all to combat democratic backsliding and ensure the continued wellbeing of civil society throughout the EU. By working together, we can provide greater assistance for societies most vulnerable and to a greater degree advocate for the rights of everyday citizens across Europe.

We will expand upon the role of civil society in the coming chapters by highlighting some of the cases of our partners throughout Europe, that help to highlight the role that civil society currently plays, and the opportunities that we have for an expanded role in the future. Furthermore we share examples of the lessons learned by our Danish partners in promoting a culture of democracy in Denmark, to exemplify good practices and conditions for CSO’s and citizens engagement.

"To understand these challenges we also need to understand the perspectives from our partners on the ground"

Challenges for the civil society in Poland

– and possible ways to overcome them with a little help from abroad

By Filip Pazderski, Senior Policy Analyst / Head of the Democracy and Civil Society Programme, Institute of Public Affair, Warsaw.


In several European Union (EU) member states democracy has been deteriorating in the recent years (IDEA, 2021). In each of them the process of democracy backsliding (Bermeo 2016: 6; IDEA 2019: 33) started at different moment and reached various level. Probably on the forefront of these trends are two Central Eastern European countries - Hungary and Poland. However, several other states in different parts of the European Union are following this path in its various aspects. Thus, it is important to observe more precisely cases, where democracy has declined more significantly to get prepared to counter further deterioration in states where things have not yet gone that far.

Moreover, examples from history show that things can turn around even in the darkest of times, when there is little prospect of the situation changing for the better. It is also one of the lessons that can be learnt from the events that took place in Central-Easter Europe in 1989, when a group of countries belonging to the communist bloc started to break down the gaps in the wall separating them from the West and restore democracy. These events were naturally facilitated by favourable geopolitical circumstances, but support from various foreign actors also helped.

Similarly, also at present there are several possible ways, how civil society in the countries that have undergone so serious deterioration can be supported from abroad. Civil society organisations can play an important role here. This chapter aims to discuss such solutions, while focusing on the developments that recently took place particularly in Poland. It will try to work out some conclusions and inspirations for possible actions that can help to counteract the emergence of similar events elsewhere.

Threats to the functioning of democracy and civil society organizations in Poland – an overview

Right after winning national elections that brought this party to power in Poland in late 2015, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) has started changing constitutional order in the country (without having a constitutional majority in the parliament) into the concept of majoritarian democracy and dismantling the most important check and balances and rule of law institutions. It included capturing the Constitutional Tribunal, National Council of the Judiciary, Supreme Court, common courts, public media, limiting some civic liberties (starting with the right to assembly) and modifying electoral administration. Also, civil society organizations (CSOs) critical of government policies were attacked by smear campaigns and their access to public funds as well as decision making processes were limited. At the same time new GONGO-style organisations close to the ruling party started to be organized and supported with state funds (Pazderski 2019a: 5). All these changes were additionally fostered by strong pro-governmental propaganda in public media controlled by the ruling majority and pursuing a conservative historical policy (i.e. see: Hackmann 2019; Etges, Zündorf, Machcewicz 2018). Such narratives were accompanied by attacking dissident voices, namely civil society, and independent media, and pointing the public attention to the enemy, which usually were the most vulnerable social minorities. At first, in 2015 these were migrants and refugees. And when the public emotions about it began to deflate, so that this fuel ran out, ruling party in Poland (and Hungary) turned against the LGBT+ community. Both these minority groups were presented as a threat not only to Polish nation economic prosperity, but also its traditional values and commons. Despite robust social protest movements against PiS policies that have appeared over the last years, due to the conservative ideological orientation prevailing in the society, strong dissatisfaction of the state of domestic politics and some social transfers they offered, populists could have maintained their influence in Polish society and won several consecutive elections until 2021.

In this period a number of developments threatened in particular functioning of Polish CSOs. The rule of law crisis, ongoing since the end of 2015, has affected both the legal environment in which CSOs operate as well as their ability to influence the content of emerging new regulations. The freedom of assembly was restricted due to the 2016 legal amendments (including introducing so-called cyclical assemblies that gained priority over all other assemblies), and then the practice of this law application, e.g. by the police. In addition, the participation of CSOs in the public debate and the law-making process has been significantly hampered - as a result of a general deterioration of the practice of public consultation, social dialogue and easing of legislative standards. CSOs involvement in public debate has also been hampered by the ruling majority narrative that such CSOs are politicised and by dividing civic sector into good ('conservative' and 'working for Polish values') and bad ('liberal' and 'leftist') parts. There was a fertile ground for such division due to growing political polarisation of Polish society (Sierakowski 2018; Cześnik, Grabowska 2017). Under these circumstances, there is also a growing group of right-wing organisations, even extreme ones, that enjoy the favour of the government party and privileges in accessing public money (e.g. distributed by governmental agency responsible for supporting and controlling CSOs - the National Freedom Institute-Centre for Civil Society Development that was newly established in 2017).

Such challenges were compounded by the additional problems that emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It concerns not only more pragmatic problems that many other entities had to contend regarding the need to reorganise all activity to remote work or the difficulty to maintain existing staff. But CSOs faced also specific challenges. They were unable to hold mass physical meetings, often used to attract financial support or new volunteers. Individual CSOs faced also more general problems with maintaining social mobilisation and activity around them. All these changes, especially in terms of the apparent decline in the volunteer base of many organisations, are also shown by research carried out in very end of 2020 (Gumkowska, Charycka 2021).

Of course, the picture of CSOs in Poland is heterogeneous. There is a group of organisations that have managed in recent years to successfully raise money from individual donors, which has provided them with the financial means to operate on a permanent basis. However, the pandemic may undermine their efforts, as well - if the financial crisis becomes more noticeable, people will be less willing to spend money, including to support CSOs (despite the fact that their work is even more needed now than before the pandemic). In addition, financial condition of local administration is also deteriorating - as a result of the pandemic, increased spending for implementing governmental policies (e.g. 2016 education reform) and reduced revenues from taxes (that government lifted for some social groups). And local authorities are important source of CSOs funding. All these trends may deteriorate the CSOs future financial situation in a long-term. Therefore, there is a need to create new sources of funding that can be channelled into the CSOs ongoing activities, not just projects. Such resources would also allow CSOs to react swiftly to current events, especially potential further deteriorations.

Moreover, despite a number of various challenges that have emerged in recent years, many CSOs have not stood still. They tried to work out solutions (see Pazderski 2019b). The CSOs have also done a great deal of work directed at documenting the phenomena taking place in various areas of state functioning. In addition, many CSOs, especially engaged in relief activities, promptly reorganised their work to assist citizens in difficult situations caused by COVID-19 pandemic (Gumkowska, Charycka 2020). CSOs got also involved in identifying and publicising irregularities that took place in the country.

In this way CSOs try to sustain social energy and prevent slackness. One example is the mobilisation of around the election of a new Ombudsman. More than 1200 of CSOs from different parts of the country, supported an initiative to propose a social candidate for this position as the previous Ombudsm