Central European societies need help to fight back

As funding for NGOs dries out the EU must step in

Jan Jakub Chromiec, Adam Traczyk
26 July 2017

Once the current judicial reform comes into force, Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, will gain a complete toolbox to sabotage the democratic process.

One leader will decide which political opponents are prosecuted and what the outcome of the trial will be. One leader will decide if elections were lawful or not. One leader will be able to pass unconstitutional legislation which secures electoral victory. New surveillance laws, limits on public assembly, limits to media freedom, changes to electoral rules: now all this can and most probably will be used against the opposition.

A fundamental reversal of these undemocratic reforms will not happen on its own. Since 2015 Warsaw has built a track record of ignoring suggestions of the European Commission and refusing dialogue with the opposition and civil society. As a result we are witnessing the build-up of a non-democratic state in the heart of a European Union built on respect for democratic standards.

Right now one of the major pillars of resistance – if not the most crucial one – is the Polish civil society. It can fight back through online campaigns, watchdogs, think tanks and community organizers helping people mobilize. And, looking forward, through citizens who gain experience in civil society organizations and become new leaders. It might be up to them to underpin democratic consciousness and revive a pro-European notion in the Polish society.

But operating an NGO in today’s Poland is as hard as it gets. The government has slashed funding for critical NGOs and redirected money to organizations supporting the ruling party’s agenda. It passed a law on an Orwellian “National Freedom Institute – National Centre for the Development of Civil Society” which will centralize public subsidies and possibly even take over control of major external funding.

Hungarian-style legislation stigmatizing NGOs funded from abroad hasn’t been passed yet. But state-run media conduct an anti-NGO campaign which aims at damaging the public perception of civil society organizations as a whole, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundation in particular.

As a result independent NGO leaders can receive support neither from the state, nor from state-owned enterprises run by party acolytes, nor from private companies who fear a political backlash. Funding sources known from Western European countries, such as independent grant-giving foundations, are barely existent in Poland.

So at a time when organized civil society is needed the most it lacks resources to engage. That’s why the European Union should step in.

The Union already supports pro-democratic NGOs in its neighbourhood. The European Instrument for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights, for instance, foresees €1.3bn for this purpose between 2014 and 2020.

But since democratic institutions are collapsing within the EU, we need an instrument directed at member states. The instrument, let’s call it Fund for European Values, would support NGOs promoting values enshrined in Article 2 of the EU Treaty, particularly rule of law, human rights and democracy. It would be accessible to organizations from all EU countries. Funds would be disbursed through institutions independent from governments through simple and quick procedures.

The Fund could prioritize initiatives providing independent information and fact-checking (especially through online channels), organizing campaigns, monitoring government activities, promoting dialogue between antagonized groups of the society and training future leaders.

To this end, three funding lines could be established. The first would provide startup grants for new initiatives. The second would focus on medium to long-term funding for established organizations. The third would hand out micro-grants for small-scale grassroots initiatives.

This instrument should be set up as soon as possible. We might not have a second chance to rescue crumbling democracies within the European Union.

Jan Jakub Chromiec is a researcher at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin

Adam Traczyk is co-founder and director of independent think tank Global.Lab in Warsaw

The article was first published in German in Die Welt