Framework Conditions of Austria’s Civil Society

Opusculum 153 | 16th of July 2021 | As part of the European Civic Space Observatory project led by the Maecenata Institute, this publication used literature and document analyses as well as 27 interviews with representatives of civil society organizations to identify the framework conditions for Austrian civil society.

Executive Summary

This survey examines the framework conditions of civil society in Austria. It was conducted at the Institute for Sociology and Empirical Social Research at WU. It builds on two previous surveys on the same topic, a Civil Society Index Rapid Assessment (More-Hollerweger et al., 2014) and an update of this Assessment (Simsa et al., 2019).

In 2014, the development of public and private funding, democratic rights and performance of civil society organisations (CSOs) were particularly important; in 2019, the focus was on the impact on civil society of authoritarian policies. The current survey initially focused on an analysis of the impact of the change to a more civil-society friendly government at the beginning of 2020. In the course of the year, the effects of the Covid-19 crisis came to the fore.

By civil society we refer to the sphere between the state, the economy and the private sphere, in which people collectively represent and try to shape their own concerns (Simsa, 2013). Civil society and its organisations have high benefits for society. In addition to producing services for the common good, they also strengthen diversity, participation and integration. The importance of a pluralistic civil society for democracy is undisputed. Democracy thus needs civil society, but civil society is not necessarily democratic. In the last year in particular, illiberal civil-society endeavours have also gained in importance, especially based on conspiracy-theories. Nevertheless, these were only a marginal topic in the present survey. Rather, in the tradition of previous surveys, the report focuses on those areas of civil society that meet Habermas´ requirements of plurality, tolerance and discursivity (Habermas, 1992).

Political framework conditions are decisive for the functioning of civil society in many respects. Apart from general human rights such as freedom of association or freedom of expression, opportunities for participation in legislative procedures, the government’s information policy, and the quality of the welfare state and the financial support of civil society organisations by the public sector play an important role. Following on from the 2019 study, the following topics will therefore be analysed:

  • The social climate in relation to civil society
  • Participation, e. political involvement of civil society
  • Funding of civil society organisations
  • The human rights situation

While in 2019 a very homogeneous picture was drawn by respondents, currently the impressions and findings are highly diverse. Some respondents complain about the lack of dialogue with politicians, while others see it as much better and more intense than in 2019. The situation is similar with participation as well as with regard to the financial situation.

It is a clear result that the general climate with regard to civil society has improved. There is hardly any devaluation or defamation on the part of politicians. The pan-demy has also made clear the high importance of services provided by civil society organisations, which are therefore increasingly appreciated. Currently, many respondents also perceive a better discourse with politicians, although there are major differences in the perception of the two governing parties in this respect.

However, the improved climate and the communication that is now partly possible again has shown little effect on the possibilities of political participation. In the health and social sectors as well as in

climate policy, the expertise of CSOs is explicitly requested by politicians and partly taken into account, but according to the respondents there is little participation in other areas. It is interesting that the situation in this regard has changed only slightly since 2019, but that civil society currently seems to accept this more than before. Firstly, this can be attributed to the pandemic. Especially in the first months of the crisis, there was more acceptance of quick, less inclusive and less transparent decisions due to the high level of uncertainty. Furthermore, during this time, organisations in the health or care sector were stretched to the limit in coping with the greatly increased work demands, leaving less time for advocacy or criticism.

Secondly, the participation of the Green Party in government also has an impact on the critical potential. On the one hand, there is a certain “inhibition to bite” on the part of some CSOs due to political or personal proximity, and there is also increased participation in the Green-led ministries. On the other hand, however, the criticism of politics, for example of asylum policy, is more severe because expectations have been disappointed. As the pandemic progressed, however, deficits in participation became clearer and more strongly criticised. The shortening of review periods, for example, which limited the possibility of comments, transparency and trust, could no longer be argued with the urgency of the decisions.

The Covid-19 pandemic is associated with severe restrictions on both fundamental and human rights and civil liberties. Exit restrictions and stand-off rules also affect freedom of assembly. In this respect, there was a difficult situation in 2021. On the one hand, events were restricted at the beginning of the pandemic with reference to the health situation, which was criticised by civil society. On the other hand, however, a series of large demonstrations against the pandemic measures, some of which were banned, took place towards the end of 2020 and in 2021 with the participation of radical right-wing groups, which showed a high degree of willingness to use violence and whose participants in some cases did not comply with the pandemic regulations.

Regarding the financial situation of CSOs the previously seen politically motivated cuts in public funding for critical CSOs were no longer seen. However, the cuts made in 2018/2019 had hardly been reversed. A decisive factor regarding the public funding of CSOs was the Nonprofit-emergency fund of 700 million euros decided in June, which had contributed significantly to providing financial security for many of the CSOs.

In terms of policy content, hopes of civil society were disappointed, especially for improvements in asylum, ecological and social welfare legislation. The last year was dominated by COVID-19 and the handling of the pandemic, leading to the postponement of other agendas important for the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the actions of the federal government posed many challenges to civil society and CSOs and caused considerable strain on their actors. It is to be hoped that the projects planned by the government (e.g. initiatives for voluntary work in 2021) will be taken up and that expenditures for absorbing the side effects of the pandemic will not be sacrificed to a new austerity course at the expense of the CSOs. Also, a new awareness of the importance of freedom and assembly rights has grown in many sectors of society. This can lead to an increase in the importance of CSOs in the post-pandemic period, if more people can be mobilised for their causes.

The methodological basis of this survey was firstly a literature and document analysis. Secondly, a total of 27 interviews with representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) were conducted between December 2020 and February 2021.