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Debate: Shrinking space for civil society

Tomorrow the European Parliament will discuss the much lamented “shrinking space for civil society”. Worldwide we see dramatic and frightening infringements on civil liberties. 

It is always good to support a strong civil society everywhere and certainly necessary that Europe stands in solidarity with those who fight oppression and autocracy. However, we call on everybody in this debate to take a moment and consider Europe’s contribution to these developments. 

The European obsession with migration control has led to cooperation agreements with  partners that openly disregard civil liberties. Turkey’s president Erdogan cuts civil liberties and squeezes civil society every single day. Nevertheless, the EU-Turkey Agreement continues to shield him from the harsh criticism he’d deserve. Similar developments occur in plenty of African states. Nevertheless, the EU continues to collaborate with highly problematic “partners”, such as Sudan and Eritrea, where the regimes have obliterated all critical voices. Similar effect like in Turkey can be expected, therefore dramatically reducing Europe’s ability to stand up for the oppressed. 

We call upon the MEPs taking part in this debate to not forget to look within the borders of the European Union. Authoritarian tendencies in Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary should not be overlooked. The shrinking space of civil society is not only happening far away. At home, too, the situation is becoming more critical everyday. 

In the Mediterranean and across Europe, people who spent incredible amounts of time, money and energy to save refugees’ lives or support them in plenty of ways, are criminalised. In a shameful campaign, Europe has removed private helpers from the Mediterranean. The Iuventa – the boat of the German NGO Jugend Rettet eV – has been tied in an Italian harbour for months, rather than being out on the sea saving lives. While hundreds of refugees have already drowned in this young 2018, EU member states are spying on helpers and grounding their boats. 

Despite all the positive and necessary contributions Europe makes to global civil society, concern for the shrinking space for civil society globally risks to become a farce, as long as Europe doesn’t start defending all civil society, including those organisations who criticise its own shortcomings and worrying tendencies within EU member states. 

We call on the European Parliament to sharply denounce these transgressions of the Commission and the Member States and stand up for the rights and freedom of a strong civil society, both at home in Europe and overseas.