The European Union (EU) has begun to design a multi-faceted response to the shrinking space for civil society. This response is beginning to have an impact. The EU is now one of the international actors most strongly committed to protecting human rights defenders (HRDs) from regimes’ increasingly draconian attempts to quash civil society. Yet there are ways in which the EU’s policies could be sharpened and broadened, so as to help the EU to address the more structural dimensions of the shrinking space problem.

The problem

The shrinking space phenomenon is getting worse. The global clampdown on civil society has deepened and accelerated in recent years. Over a hundred governments have introduced restrictive laws limiting the operations of civil society organisations (CSOs). Many regimes also deploy a range of other – formal and informal – tactics to disadvantage CSOs. Restrictions on civil society are intensifying in non-democratic but also democratic countries. The number of human rights defenders killed by governments is at a record high across the world.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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The closing space is part of a general authoritarian pushback against democracy, but it is not only that. Neither is it simply a crusade against human rights defenders. While the closing space has become a global trend, it exhibits different characteristics across different countries. In some cases the onslaught is mainly against foreign funding; in other cases this is a secondary by-product. The phenomenon counts many deep-seated structural drivers, in part linked to the world’s authoritarian turn, in part the reflection of an emboldened anti-liberal social agenda. In the latest phase of the phenomenon, regimes are increasingly brazen in their moves against civil society, and feel less need to act covertly or to contrive defensive justifications.

The EU response

In the last three or four years the EU has reiterated a commitment to address the shrinking space. Many different EU actors and strategies have expressed this commitment. The shrinking space problem is on its way to being mainstreamed at the heart of EU foreign policy.

The EU has responded to the shrinking space through a range of more specific policy mechanisms and instruments.

The EU has funded a particularly notable range of initiatives from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). The EIDHR’s Emergency Fund for HRDs at risk channels funds to human rights defenders quickly when these are facing a moment of acute danger. The EIDHR funds a Human Rights Defenders Protection Mechanism, now known as Under this mechanism, a consortium of 12 international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) channels and coordinates timely emergency support to HRDs at high risk. The EIDHR Crisis Facility is used to respond more generally to human rights emergencies in countries where the EU cannot launch calls for proposals.

Other instruments are more broadly about generic civil society support, but have also been increasingly directed specifically at the shrinking space problem. These instruments include the EU’s new Civil Society Roadmaps, now being implemented in 105 countries; a new generation of Human Rights and Democracy Country Strategy Papers; the European Neighbourhood Instrument; and the thematic programme under the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI) for Civil Society Organisations and Local Authorities (CSOLA).

EU delegations’ capacity has been enhanced through Human Rights Focal Points and Human Rights Defenders Liaison Officers that are charged with helping to protect vulnerable groups and individuals. The EU’s Human Rights Special Representative has increasingly addressed the shrinking space challenge in his bilateral meetings and in international organisations. The shrinking space issue is now a central issue within the EU’s dedicated human rights dialogues. The European Parliament has also addressed shrinking space questions through a number of its procedures and policy tools.

The European Endowment for Democracy has played an increasingly important and innovative role in limiting the shrinking space problem. A number of member states have also introduced important commitments to push back against civil society restrictions in their bilateral diplomacy and aid programmes.


The most effective part of these EU responses has been the protection offered to human rights defenders. The EU has in general made an impact through being slightly more flexible in some of its aid modalities, enabling funds to get to endangered activists.

It is proving harder for the EU – or indeed any other international actor – to get a grip on the deeper, structural aspects of the problem. The EU has admirably stepped up its efforts to build general civil society resilience in many countries. But in most places these initiatives have not been backed strongly enough to bring about tangible or immediate improvements in CSOs’ precarious situation. Many EU policy instruments fail to specify how their generic commitment to CSO support translates into concrete measures and benchmarks to protect them from the narrowing civic space.

In some elements of its aid funding, the EU has shifted to supporting uncontroversial, development CSOs as it has become harder to engage with more political organisations. In some cases this has helped keep some link to civil society open; in many cases, however, critics say it has inadvertently helped regimes isolate out-spoken civil society opponents under the guise of partnering with the EU on development policy.

In its high-level diplomacy the EU can still be strikingly cautious in confronting regimes engaged in brutal civil society crackdowns. The general direction of EU security policy often undercuts efforts to hold the shrinking space problem at bay.

Ways forward

The EU needs to map out a clearer strategic approach to the shrinking space, as it is now clear that merely ad hoc and defensive responses will not be adequate.

The EU needs to make sure that for each admirable effort to protect frontline defenders, it supports a concrete engagement on the structural roots of the shrinking space. The short-term and long-term aspects of the challenge must be tackled more resolutely and together.

The EU needs to strike a careful balance between political responses and a development-oriented approach. Neither is sufficient on its own. Neither the political approach nor the development approach should be pursued to the exclusion of the other. The EU has been right to avoid an overly political approach that subjugates all other areas of policy to a head-on confrontation with regimes over highly political CSOs. However, the EU should be careful not to tilt too far towards apolitical approaches to development that minimise the significance of the shrinking space for civil society.

While a focus on the enabling environment is essential, the EU needs to make sure this is pursued in a way that is not so generic and abstract, and is more connected to immediate diplomatic policy in specific countries. Formal improvements in the legal environment for CSOs often fail to protect civic activists in practice. The EU needs a foreign policy capable of attacking the political specificities of the shrinking space problem in individual states. Freedom of association must be backed up by a more expansive focus on the right to participate. For this the EU needs to leverage oblique forms of political pressure.

The EU needs to support much stronger and wider coalitions, both within countries and internationally. The EU needs to push CSOs to pay more attention to building links downwards through their own societies and with business actors; if they were less isolated domestically they would be better protected from regimes. If the EU can stop regimes playing divide and rule between different elements of civil society, this could also make a major contribution to mitigating the shrinking space problem. Internationally, the EU needs to invest more effort in building more effective partnerships with other organisations working to address the shrinking space problem.

The EU needs to devote more resources and effort to identify and support new kinds of civil society actors, as the standard or classical form of human rights NGO is especially vulnerable to restrictive measures. The EU needs a systematic and dedicated programme to help galvanise the new forms of civil society activity that are taking shape across the world. It should also explore non-financial forms of support to civil society.

This study concludes by suggesting how these broad guidelines can be addressed through very specific changes and additions to EU policy instruments.

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This report was originally published by the European Parliament.