Recently, Visegrad/Insight interviewed Stefan Schäfers, Head of European Affairs for the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), about the institution’s new strategy to combat the issues facing our modern democracies.
You are launching a new initiative to support democracy in Europe. What is the challenge and why it is important for KBF and Europe in general?
Liberal democracies in the European Union have been under stress over the past few years, at both national and regional levels. Citizens are insecure about their future and they doubt the ability not just of the European Union but also of the national governments – and the democratic system in general – to meet their needs and serve their interests. Among the results have been aa rise of authoritarian populist parties, Brexit, a more and more toxic debate around ‘otherness’, citizens not making their voices heard in an organised way and disengaging from democratic processes.
Such challenges are evidence that democracy requires constant investment and this prompted a group of foundations to establish Civitates.
The creation of this fund comes both as a statement of the values and principles each partner foundation stands for as individual organisations and a reaffirmation of the importance of functioning democratic systems in Europe.
Civitates, which has 16 partners and €4 million committed over the initial three years, works on two vital aspects of democracy: a healthy environment for civil society and the quality of public discourse in the era of digitisation.
What do you hope to achieve with the new financial instrument that you launched this May? Who is it addressed to and what sort of activities do you intend to support?
Our first area of work focuses on “the shrinking space for civil society”. In fact, in several EU member states – to differing degrees – civil society’s right to exist is being contested and its space to operate is being reduced. In 2018, CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks civic space issues globally, identified 11 European member states where civic space has become ‘narrowed’ or ‘obstructed’.
Through our first call for proposals, launched on the 3rd of May, 2018, Civitates wants to foster coalition building among civil society organisations to build strong national coalitions of actors in countries that will be active in ‘fighting back’ where the space for civil society is threatened.
Our goal is to strengthen civil society by empowering its actors to respond to challenges related to the shrinking space collectively and more effectively. It is also a way to reaffirm the legitimacy and embedded status of civil society in democratic systems.
In the second area of work, Civitates wants to enable citizens and policy-makers to understand the functioning of the digital news and information ecosystem and its impact on their news diet, thus making them aware of potential manipulation. We also want to encourage a move towards the transparency and accountability of technological companies with regard to their role in the aiming of information or misinformation at particular groups of citizens. After consultations with several experts in the field, an intervention plan is currently being elaborated, and we hope to issue the first grants of this sub-fund in the second half of 2018.
How innovative is this approach – why are EU funds not enough? What were the main difficulties you had to overcome when planning and launching the initiative?
This approach is innovative in two ways. First, concerning EU funding in the field of democracy, there is clearly a gap when it comes to Europe. There is currently no mechanism to provide EU funds for upholding the fundamental values of the EU. The European parliament voted by a large majority to endorse the proposal for a European Values Instrument (EVI) in April 2018 but a European Value fund does not exist yet. The creation of Civitates comes as a contribution of European Philanthropy to the urgency of the situation.
Secondly, European Foundations gathered in this collective effort can experiment innovative approaches over a long-time horizon and foster solidarity with democracy actors throughout Europe. This is not an easy task as each individual funder has its own priorities and approaches. However, through an inclusive and participatory approach, we have been able to form a united front to stand for the values and principles we believe in.
Civitates, A Philanthropic Initiative for Democracy and Solidarity in Europe is hosted by the Network of European Foundations, based in Brussels. http://www.nef-europe.org/democracy/
Stefan Schäfers has been working for the King Baudouin Foundation since 2008. As Head of European Affairs, he is responsible for the European partnerships and projects of the Foundation, mainly in the fields of European integration, democracy, migration and health. He is the chair of the Civitates Fund, the European Programme for Integration and Migration (EPIM) as well as coordinator of the New Pact for Europe. Stefan is member of the Governing Board of the European Policy Centre (EPC) a Brussels based think tank. He worked from 2003 to 2007 as a senior consultant for IFOK, a German communication consultancy specialized in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), stakeholder and citizens participation, and since 2004, he headed the IFOK Brussels office. He studied Business Economics at the Catholic University of Eichstätt/Germany and the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Nice/France with a focus on International Business Administration. In 2003, he received a PhD in International Business Ethics.
For more on the call for proposals visit: http://www.nef-europe.org/calls-for-proposals/