European civil society in the public sphere: an update

01.08.2022 I A roundtable at this year’s ISTR conference outlined the current civil society landscape in Europe and the challenges facing the sphere

Dr. Ulla Pape Otto works at the Otto-Suhr Institute at the Freie University in Berlin, currently researching systems of governance in Russia under the GOVRUS project. She attended this year’s the ISTR conference in Montreal and has summarised the roundtable ‘European civil society in the public sphere’ in a blog post:

About 30 researchers from different countries gathered to discuss recent changes affecting nonprofit organisations across Europe. The roundtable focused on the well-known issue of shrinking space for civil society.

Anna Domaradzka, sociologist and assistant professor at the University of Warsaw, described the difficult situation of nonprofits in Poland. There, government policies have been directing funding through the National Freedom Institute, thereby favouring organisations that are in line with government priorities. Funding schemes for nonprofits are also changing in France. Claire Breschard of the Institut Français du Monde Associatif explained that the financial conditions for the nonprofit sector in France have become more difficult. Ruth Simsa of Vienna University of Economics and Business turned her attention to the impact of right-wing populism on civil society in Austria, which has led to critical funding cuts for critical nonprofits and to a growing gap between the government and civil society. The political developments in Austria have destabilised democratic institutions and contributed to rising economic inequalities. According to Simsa, the concept of civil society capture can help us understand how authoritarian governments have asserted pressure on civil society through public discourses and marginalising critical voices. Rupert Strachwitz of the Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society in Berlin emphasised the difficulties of collaboration between the state and civil society in Germany. As there is not an effective partnership between the two spheres, civil society organisations often find themselves in a difficult situation, particularly in comparison to businesses, which have much stronger representation.

The panelists then discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine on civil society in Europe. In Poland, a strong response to the war could be observed. The influx of Ukrainian refugees prompted the need for increased civil society participation in the provision of support services. However, the modes of cooperation between the Polish government and civil society still remains unclear. In France, nonprofit organisations still feel the effects of the pandemic. Many organisations have moved their operations online, which has undermined collaboration between co-workers and activists. In Germany, the pandemic has had a detrimental effect on the strength of local communities of choice.

The discussion with the audience focused on civil society debates in Europe and the problem of how organisations are portrayed in the media. The panelists highlighted that the media’s framing of civil society is often problematic. In addition, policy-makers are often afraid of losing power, and the political systems in Europe are increasingly under pressure. In this situation, nonprofits find it difficult to reach out for new volunteers and supporters. Further questions from the audience turned the attention to protest movements during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a nutshell, the panel debate offered a detailed insight into the challenges that nonprofits are currently facing in Europe.

Dr. Ulla Pape Otto

Montreal, July 2022