© Christian Bobst

4 Takeaways From the New Civil Society State of the Union Report

BY: Peterson Paul - 11. October 2023
© Christian Bobst

It is crucial to intensify efforts in reclaiming civic space to defend against the increasing prevalence of authoritarian and hybrid regimes. In today's interconnected world, preserving space for civic engagement requires collective action to strengthen civil society's role and responsibilities at all levels. The newly released Civil Society State of the Union Report offers valuable insights and recommendations on meaningful actions. 

Below are four key takeaways from the report. If you’re interested in learning more about these findings and opportunities to protect and reclaim civic space, join Helvetas’ upcoming symposium on October 31. This free hybrid event will take a deep dive on this topic with experts and activists from different geographies and backgrounds.  

1. Strengthening democracy, fundamental rights and civic space requires stronger civil society organizations and institutional reforms. 

Although Europe has made strides in increasing citizen participation through various forums, including citizens' assemblies, panels and petitions, some key challenges remain. The fight against civil society organizations’ (CSOs) intimidation, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), discrimination, violence, and judicial, economic and social harassment requires long-lasting commitments from Europe. European Union Institutions (EUI) and member states must improve their ability to safeguard and assist CSOs by implementing policy reforms that promote deliberative and participatory democracy and fundamental rights.  

The report urges the EUI and member states to:  

  • Adopt a strategy that recognizes CSOs as allies in designing and implementing people-centered and human rights-based policies that foster inclusive public participation.  

  • Establish ethical frameworks that allow citizens and civil society representatives, regardless of their background, to influence EU policy and decision-making while ensuring compliance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. 

  • Design funding mechanisms that are flexible and accessible to small and grassroots organizations and social movements, involving them in defining topic priorities and funding criteria that adapt to their realities and contexts. 

2. Having a safe and protected digital civic space that leaves no one behind is essential to promote democracy.  

Institutions established to protect democratic values are weakened as hybrid regimes use them for political gain, violating election integrity and altering the course of democratic governance. These regimes are intruding on and accessing sensitive and confidential data, violating e-privacy and net neutrality, spreading misinformation, encouraging hate speech and bullying human rights defenders. Safeguarding and protecting digital civic spaces has never been so urgent.  

Although Europe supports e-democracy and fundamental rights worldwide, the report shows that Europe still faces substantial obstacles in guaranteeing digital transparency and inclusive participation and safeguarding online freedom and rights. Rights advocates, women in public and political spheres, and members of the LGBTI community are among the most targeted, and therefore are at a heightened risk of shrinking if not obstructed digital space. To create a safe and protected digital civic space, EUI and member states should:   

  • Explore ways to address technical, legal and societal challenges of e-participation, including participatory budgeting and e-voting. These methods require verifiable processes to facilitate safe citizen engagement. 

  • Ensure that e-government services include men and women with limited access to digital tools or with disabilities, and provide adequate access and assistance.  

  • Assist CSOs and citizens in improving their digital skills and abilities to support their ongoing e-advocacy and e-accountability efforts, while pushing governments to prioritize transparent and inclusive policies. 

  • Develop a framework that considers how artificial intelligence affects rights, obligations and freedoms, and which enforces laws on online platforms and media to protect European citizens in digital space. This legal framework should require these platforms to take action to prevent the spread of false information, online bullying and the mistreatment of civil society members, journalists, women, people with disabilities, children and any other group at risk of cyberbullying.  

3. Citizens’ collective action for a healthy planet must be promoted and supported. 

Spaces for climate activism are shrinking around the world. Climate defenders face obstacles in exercising their right to assembly and association. Corrupt governments are colluding with some private companies, making selective and unlawful arrests, using online platforms and media to portray activists as anti-development, and sometimes endangering the lives of climate defenders.  

The impact of climate change varies based on individual and community factors, including social, economic, cultural and gender differences. At-risk and marginalized groups in Europe, such as racialized communities, women, children, workers and youth, are particularly vulnerable. Women and young people still face barriers to exercising their environmental rights due to gender-based violence and exclusion from decision-making processes. Trade union representatives are excluded from climate discussions to shape policy and protect workers affected by climate change. To promote and support collective action for a healthy planet, European CSOs urge EUI and member states to:  

  • Channel structural and financial support towards community-led initiatives to empower those most impacted by climate change, while facilitating effective citizen participation, adaptation and localization of initiatives stemming from the European Green Deal

  • Promote gender-responsive environmental and climate policies that address environmental impact through sound gender analysis. 

  • Grant environmental rights and civic space for advocating climate justice safely and freely, without retaliation and attacking climate defenders’ integrity. 

4. Broaden civic space by strengthening migrant, refugees and asylum seekers meaningful participation and integration in Europe.  

The increasing scale of migration and forced displacement of people from their homes is causing more individuals to be pushed to the fringes of society. As a result, they are often subjected to abuse in societies that are becoming more hostile due to the rise of xenophobia and nationalism. Migrant workers and refugees may be in precarious situations where their rights are severely limited. When CSOs offer humanitarian assistance or help migrants exercise their rights, they face persecution and discrimination.  

CSOs urge the EUI and member states to take concrete actions toward encouraging freedom of movement and solidarity for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (MRAs) in pursuit of a more inclusive and just Europe. EUI and its member states should:  

  • Fight hate speech toward migrants, while shedding light on the indispensable political, social, cultural and economic contributions of MRAs in Europe. 
  • Ensure that MRAs and their representative organizations meaningfully participate and are consulted in all phases of policymaking, including design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.  

  • Empower CSOs to support MRAs freely, regardless of their residence or migration status. 

  • Recognize and validate migrants’ prior learning skills and qualifications, enabling them to effectively participate in the labor market. 

Additional Reading 

Global Report: Democracy beyond the ballot box 

Open Society Barometer: Can democracy deliver? 

About the author

Gender & Social Equity

Helvetas makes sure that our work actively and meaningfully includes and supports the most disadvantaged groups.

Voice, Inclusion & Cohesion

In many countries where we work, men and women are unable to claim their rights and participate actively in decision-making processes.


Real change requires open dialog between policymakers and society. So Helvetas promotes exchange between decision-makers and those affected by their decisions.