With generous financial support from Porticus and the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE), the Maecenata Foundation has embarked on an ambitious project, based on the observation that the room for manoeuvre for civil society and the room for civic action and participation generally is changing and has deteriorated in many political constituencies. The European Civic Space Observatory (ECSO), which is put into practice in this larger framework by the Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society (MI), should provide a theoretical and empirical contribution to the academic debate over this phenomenon, which henceforth will be referred to as ‘Shrinking Civic Space’ (SCS).
Given that the room in which civil society actors and individual citizens can contribute to public matters is subject to fundamental change in Europe, this will be the focus of the three-year research and awareness raising project on Europe. Whilst in some areas, the influence of civic initiatives is stronger today than ever before, civic action is highly controversial in others. One can generally assume that governments are attempting to oust non-state actors from public spaces and/ or to reduce them to support services. Infringements of basic human and civic rights are also becoming a common phenomenon.
ESCO is developing a monitoring system that is sensitive enough to map out the limits of civic space in European democracies and to deliver a theoretical approach, which sufficiently explains the paradox that “civic space is simultaneously growing and shrinking.” The Maecenata Institute has created a network of partners in selected European countries for this purpose. As it is a German institution, a special emphasis was placed on the analysis of Germany. Furthermore, the project is working addressing and incorporating a series of academic endeavours and other studies, which can enrich the project’s overall goals. This has led to and will continue to lead to holding events and networking. Finally, preparing results and raising awareness of the questions linked to it is a central component of the project.
Hence, the first roundtable entitled ‘Facing shrinking space – How are you Civil Society?’ took place on 27 April 2022. The key questions for the English-speaking online event were: Where are we standing in the contestation of European’s Civil Society? What can CSOs do to respond? The participants were Sebastian Muckenhuber (Austria, WU), Ramon Feenstra (Spain, UJI), Anna Domaradzka (Poland, University of Warsaw), Claire Breschard (France, IFMA) alongside Valentin Toth (Civil Liberties Union for Europe) and Ruth de Frutos (UMA). A series of roundtables across Europe will follow. There, participants will present newly-published data from the ESCO project from Austria, France, Germany, Spain and Poland. Interactive workshops should help CSOs to build resilience as well as support affected CSOs in specific circumstances. The Roundtable was also approved to feature in the ISTR Conference in Montreal. There, Siri Hummel and Rupert Graf Strachwitz represented the project in July 2022.
The following country reports have so far come to fruition under the project framework:
Further project publications are expected in the course of the year.
Alongside the ESCO project, the Maecenata Institute is also working on building a website where offers of help for civil society organisations and activists affected by the shrinking space phenomenon can be accessibly replenished within its remit. The aim is create a comprehensive data set of addresses for and of civil society organisations, which expands itself and can be shared. Moreover, this will allow those affected to document restrictions and cases of Shrinking Spaces on the website. We are thereby obtaining an effective tool for monitoring the conditions of action for civil society in Europe and a data basis for future studies.