Are Democratic Freedoms the new ‘Sick Man of Europe’? The health of civil society in Europe

The ability of independent groups to work freely is a measure of the health of our democracies.

However, across Europe, a creep appears to be occurring whereby certain democratic rights and freedoms are coming under threat, in particular, rights relating to the healthy operation of civil society organisations. Yesterday witnessed the opening of the trial of Seán Binder, Sara Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos in Greece, NGO migrant rights workers who had been operating on the island of Lesbos.

During 2022, the UK witnessed notable curbs on certain rights and freedoms through a series of controversial new pieces of legislation.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 imposes new restrictions on peaceful protest, increases protest-related fines and sentences, and strengthens police powers to crack down on “unauthorized encampments” which risks exacerbating discrimination against Traveller, Roma, and Gypsy people. This Act has been controversial, leading to protests under the slogan "Kill the Bill" in various British cities before it came into force. It received criticism both locally and internationally by various politicians, human rights groups, journalists and academics, due to the impact on free expression, freedom of speech and the right to protest in the UK.

The Elections Act 2022 introduced voter identification requirements, which creates a real risk of disenfranchisement on the basis of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. The Act was passed seemingly without a clear demonstration about how the new powers are proportionate, or indeed necessary. The Act also gives the government power to set the priorities of the Electoral Commission, the UK elections watchdog, creating fears for its independence.

New measures in The Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 limit the extent to which people who fear their rights are affected by immigration or social security decisions can challenge them in the courts. The Act broadens the menu of remedies that the courts may choose to grant and limits the use of judicial review as an appeal route from tribunals.

Finally, The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 effectively dismantles the UK’s asylum and refugee law regime, setting up instead a fundamentally discriminatory structure. The Act also lays the legal groundwork for pushbacks and offshore refugee processing and makes stripping citizenship easier.

Across the waters, Greece has attracted international attention for harassing civil society organisations, particularly groups involved in assisting migrants. According to United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, human rights defenders in Greece, particularly those working on migration, operate in an environment of pervasive fear and insecurity.

“I am concerned about the increasing criminalization of humanitarian assistance in Greece. Solidarity should never be punished and compassion should never be put on trial,” she said in 2022 while presenting her preliminary findings at the end of a 10-day mission in the country last summer.

With Greece facing intense international criticism over unlawful pushbacks of migrants at its borders and wider human rights concerns related to migration and asylum, the Greek government has moved to silence groups and individuals documenting these abuses. While acknowledging Greece’s migration challenges and government efforts to address them, Lawlor criticized burdensome rules for the registration of non-governmental organizations working on migration, introduced in 2019, calling them discriminatory and in violation of Greece’s international human rights obligations.

Meanwhile two dozen defendants, including Irish volunteer Seán Binder, face trial this week in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on misdemeanor charges related to Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a registered non-governmental search-and-rescue organization that regularly cooperated with Greek authorities on missions in Greek waters and on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018. The humanitarian work of the ERCI was extensive, and included supporting more than 1,000 people to reach safety, organising workshops and swimming classes for children in Kara Tepe camp for migrants, and providing residents in Moria camp in Lesbos with medical assistance. ERCI was registered as a non-governmental organisation and regularly cooperated with Greek authorities, including with the Greek Coast Guard on rescue operations. A European Parliament report has identified the trial as, “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.”

In France, state efforts to define the place of Islam and Muslims in society under President Macron’s government have extended to curbs on groups that speak out against those efforts, including bans by government decrees and asset freezes, notably against the anti-discrimination organisation, Collective Against Islamophobia in France, known by its French abbreviation CCIF.

The French government put pressure on the European Commission to cut funding to French and other organisations for speaking out against French government policy. The government used the criminal justice system against people showing solidarity with irregular migrants until appeal courts stepped in. It passed a law requiring organisations in France to sign up to an ill-defined loyalty contract including to receive public funding.

There is mounting evidence that civil society organizations, including groups that work to protect human rights, are under growing threat in Europe. The current threat doesn’t come just from perceived repressive governments like those in Russia or Turkey. Nor is it even confined to more authoritarian-leaning democratic states like Hungary and Poland. It now also comes from elected governments in states whose democracies appear in better health, such as France, Greece, Italy, and the UK.

The idea that a state can legitimately interfere with civil society groups simply because it doesn’t like what they are working on or what they have to say has chilling implications for the health of democracy and the protection of human rights. Civil society organisations exercise a critical function in a democratic society as a check on executive power. Curbs on their work undermine that function, and thereby fray the democratic fabric.

As health systems across Europe come under strain, we should not also allow the health of European democracy to suffer. Democratic freedom should not be the newest ‘sick man of Europe’.



Sustaining Partners