Giada Negri Research and advocacy officer European Civic Forum

Over the last decades, the economic system functioning at global and European level has been characterised by rising inequalities, a growing numbers of people that feel left behind, and shrinking social rights. All these trends have been accelerated after the 2008 financial crisis. This long process of degradation of social cohesion has produced deep socio-economic, cultural and geographical divides inside our societies. In Europe, today many have lost confidence in the ways rule of law and democracy are functioning. Many feel that the current institutional channels do not ensure their needs are heard and addressed.

A democracy that fails to deliver the basic rights and needs for everyone contributes to feeding competition between groups. By exacerbating the tensions inside our societies, the social impacts of this economic model created a fertile ground for regressive political offers. Nationalism, xenophobia, identity politics based on exclusion are becoming substitutes for an inclusive shared future.

The COVID-19 crisis is deepening these existing trends of deterioration. It has unveiled how inequalities make all of us as vulnerable as the least protected and most marginalised members in our societies. The economic shock that is following the health emergency is exacerbating societal needs and existing inequalities. It has allowed most European governments to gain exceptional powers, introduce blanket restrictions to fundamental rights and increase the power of law enforcement authorities.

At the same time, we have seen exciting and hopeful developments. We have seen a new enthusiasm for volunteering and community organising, that has also relied on existing associative infrastructures. Civic actors have been active in supporting communities to better cope with the pandemic, including by providing social services to people at risk, such as the elderly, patients, people in quarantine, minorities, migrants and refugees. They launched projects boosting capacity of public healthcare institutions through support for medical workers, fundraising for hospitals, arranging medical equipment or running information campaigns about the pandemic. CSOs have also closely monitored the situation of human and civil rights during the lockdown and intervene when common European values are challenged. Their work is and will continue to be necessary to easing hardship caused by the pandemic to vulnerable social groups, to maintain social cohesion and solidarity, as well as to invigorate political legitimacy of the European project in the years after the pandemic.

After decades of rising individualism and generalised competition, many citizens have rediscovered the profound links between individual and social responsibility, the absolute need for public services protected from markets’ rules, for policies aimed at social cohesion, for care and solidarity. These are the basic elements for a democracy that delivers for the people.

The European Civic Forum has been monitoring these positive and negative trends on the platform Civic Space Watch and put forward 10 lessons from the crisis that we should not waste as societies start opening up again.

The recovery should take stock of the community organisasing and efforts sparked during the crisis. I would summarise our recommendations toward a just recovery in three points:

First, national and European responses to support and recover the economy should prioritise social cohesion and ensure civic organisations are able to keep acting vis a vis the social and democratic emergencies Europe will face.

In this post crisis phase, even if the capacities of the sector were not to decrease compared to before the crisis, they would not be enough to respond to the social desperation that is resulting from the current situation. In addition the capacities of the sector have been under great financial and economic pressure. While there has been widespread public enthusiasm for volunteering, civic organisations have been struggling to deal with increased demand for their services coupled with a decline in fundraised and earned income.

States and European institutions must ensure that CSOs benefit from all measures taken to help maintain the capacities of companies, but also provide specific fundings and tools dedicated to the revival of the third sector. We can find positive practices at national level. For example, Ireland announced a €40m package of support for the charity sector.

At the European level while there was an acknowledgement of the role civil society plays in upholding European values, the decision to cut the Rights and values programme by about 20% is symbolic of other cuts that will affect programmes supporting the sector. The European Civic Forum and over 300 associations across Europe are calling on national leaders to redress this decision. Cutting the funds for the civil society will only aggravate the social and political problems that the EU will be facing in the coming years. It will also send a wrong signal about the EU’s commitment to its values and citizens’ rights.

Second, civil dialogue should be strengthened at national and European level. CSOs have unique expertise on societal vulnerabilities and democracy, and must have access to public authorities, at all levels, so that their alerts, analyses and proposals are included in the decision-making process.

Finally, European and international institution must put pressure and take action vis-a-vis public authorities where they do not conduct this civil dialogue with CSOs.

To conclude, the pandemic has unveiled the many contradictions of an economic system that divides us and is socially, politically and environmentally unsustainable. The future must be different from the past. We need to learn from the Lessons and act together. Thank you.