Chapter 1: Historic perspectives on the role of civil society in moderen European History

INTRODUCTION In this part we will focus on the historic perspectives on the role of civil society centering on the period from 1989-2004, the historic events taking place in this moment and the shaping of the democratic developments in the EU. Through understanding of the events and developments that shaped the EU of today and the perspective of the role of civil society in the key moments of democratic battles in Europe in recent times, we believe that we can extract important insight for understanding the current issue of democratic decline in some membership countries as well as lessons to be used to combat such trends. The contributor Heather Grabbe, Director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, as well as Søren Keldorff board member at Nyt Europa and Søren Riishøj, professor emeritus examinate the implications of the 2004-enlargement process as well as some of the current challenges that civil society especially in Poland and Hungary face. As the introductory quote demonstrates then perhaps some of these current challenges has root in the very liberal wave at the highlighted timeframe and the victories of the democracy champions of the time. The role and conditions of civil society was, if not taken for granted, then not as much a focus after the democratic transition and entrance to the EU as the democratic institutions themselves, the implications of which was examined in the conference “Civil society in turbulent times – New solutions in the EU inspired by the lessons from the past” taking place November the 24th 2020. The conference was part of a series of initiatives with the aim to mobilize established civil society in the fight against current challenges. During this conferences the partners of the “History of Optimism” project, Nyt Europa, MitOst e.V., Institute of Public Affairs and European Civic Forum, invited scholars, CSO’s, decision-makers and representatives of the EU institutions to partake in a dialog in three segments: Lessons learnt on the democratic transformation and civic engagement in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE); A current assessment of the state of rule of law and democracy in Europe; and finally a debate on how to support civil society as democracy champions going forward with rule of law initiatives. From the conferences many critical points were extracted that will feature throughout the report, nor the least Heather Grabbes keynote speech. We hope that this part will provide an insight in what we believe to be a very critical historic perspective on some of the current democratic challenges facing the EU of today. FAILED EXPECTATIONS AND THE STRUGGLES FOR CIVIL SOCIETY IN EUROPE POST 1989 by Heather Grabbe – Director of the Open Society European Policy Institute - Keynote at the conference “Civil society in turbulent times – New solutions in the EU inspired by the lessons from the past”, 24th of November 2020. We are taking stock of our European history - of how much has changed in the past 30 years and how the challenges to civil society have changed. Back in the early 1990’s, both the European Union and the Open Society Foundations, George Soros, decided to take a big punt on civil society believing that it was going to be important as they put a lot of support of all kinds, infrastructural support, and political support, into civil society organizations in the region. Among us today (at the conference, ed.) are a number of people that have been involved in that process at least at some point over those decades. And among those of us who have been involved for a long time, there is a certain amount of liberal nostalgia for the days when civil society was the effective opposition in quite a lot of countries before the parties had consolidated that also, before the EU membership was a controversial topic. At that point it was universally supported for most of the 1990s, certainly in Poland and Hungary. It was only controversial in the Czech Republic and to a certain extent in Slovenia but at that point there was a big consensus about EU membership and generally a consensus that civil society was a good thing. In fact, the liberalism that was very much in vogue at the time saw civil society as the absolute key actors for being an intermediary between politics and understanding what was going on at the political level, and the population and their daily lives and their concerns. I still believe that that is very much the case, but you hear many conflicting opinions about this subject, and this politicization of civil society and politicization of EU membership are at the heart of many crises that we are seeing right now in Poland, in Hungary, and increasingly at the EU level as well, as these battles have escalated and got right up to the European Council. This is in some ways a critical as it shows how bad things have gotten and how two member states are now prepared to block the whole EU budget and recovery funds on the basis of a rule of law mechanism that should have been put in place a long time ago. But also, it is good news that the whole EU is now paying attention to what is going on in Poland and Hungary. Everybody is much more aware that this is not just about a few local political difficulties; this is something that could threaten the whole European Union.

To go back to what has happened over the past three decades: The Open Society Foundations and George Soros saw early on that civil society organizations were the effective opposition in many countries. That they were also the liberalizing tendency in the organization. And his philosophy of philanthropy in the beginning was to find a good set of local people who believe in an open