Shrinking space for civil society: The future of civic activism

Shrinking space for civil society: The future of civic activism

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Uncertain Times: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations from the Perspective of NGOs and Think Tanks in Central Europe and Hungary
- online webinar series organised by the Hungarian Europe Society -
Fourth Debate
Shrinking space for civil society: The future of civic activism

Date: 12 March 2021, Friday 6:00 - 7:30 p.m. (CET)

Welcome address by István Hegedűs, chairman, Hungarian Europe Society

Panelists
Roger Casale,
Executive Director, New Europeans, Brussels
Thomas O. Melia, Washington Director, PEN America (USA)
Emil Kirjas, Vice President, Liberal International, Barcelona

Moderator: István Hegedűs, chairman, Hungarian Europe Society

Short briefings are followed by an open debate.

For the corresponding papers please scroll down. Sign in or register on our website and share your comments on the papers after scrolling down to the comment section (below).

This event is part of the "Uncertain Times: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations from the Perspective of NGOs and Think Tanks in Central Europe and Hungary" project which is supported by the Embassy of the United States of America in Budapest.

Please note that the language of the event is English and no translation will be provided.

This event is being video recorded for archival, educational, and related promotional purposes. By attending or participating in this event, you are giving your consent to the video recording.

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There are 7 Comments

Hegedűs István's picture

1. Roger Casale argues that "the Europe of citizens - is the key to the resilience of the European project". Do we really have European citizens who care about the European Union as much as about their nation states? 
2. "We have to ask, why the lies were believed", he raises the question talking about Brexit and the Leave campaign. To understand this phenomenon, we need "a level of empathy". How far should liberal minded citizens and political players go in understanding anti-liberal views or should they simply resist them by offering an alternative?
3. Roger Casale also asks "How can states embrace citizen activism without placing the institutions of representative democracy in jeopardy?" What would be a proper balance between the two important democratic claims?

MET's picture

1. The lack of European identities (in parallel and on par with national identities) has been the fundamental weakness of European integration, ever since its conception. For the European citizens, it has been a practical project, rather than something connected to their identities, values or emotions. In fact, there have been little effort from the European elites to change this, who themselves concentrated on the practical aspect of deepening integration, assuming that the change in identities and self-perceptions of European will follow by itself. This has clearly proven to be false. In the future, conscious communication effort would be needed, with the involvement of trust-figures and even social media influencers, to increase the sentiment that Europe is as much home to you as you nation state, where you can move about, work and have fun everywhere with the same safety you feel in your hometown.

2. It is crucial to approach with empathy and understanding towards those people who feel insecure in the modern world, starting from their feeling vulnerable against unknowns forces, their need of self-preservation that then leads them to isolationism, xenophobia and belief in conspiracy theories. This has also been at the heart of Brexit and the uptake of Leave campaign messages. Losing your ground facing the complexities of todays’ societies is real and quite understandable, and in itself it should not be held against our fellow citizens: we should rather concentrate on restoring their realistic/healthy perceptions of the complex society around them.

It is clear where the alternative “resistance” approach leads: an increased polarisation of society, with divisions within families and other basic societal structures /micro-communities. The continued feeding of sentiments with  “us vs them”, that is also an aspect of the liberal narrative, would in fact just reinforce the anti-liberal narrative that sees the world in terms of unknown and hidden enemies conspiring against you.

3. Indeed, there are aspects of citizen activism that can work to undermine trust in “traditional” representative democracy. Therefore, as we have nothing better than representative democracy, we have to fight sentiments where the traditional institutions are considered as “them”, standing against “us” in our civil movement. Instead of “us and them”, civil movements should consider their role as one aspect in a joint work towards the betterment of society, where other democratic institutions are allies rather than opponents. In fact, these worlds should not be considered mutually exclusive: a civil movement should always consider whether their objectives could be better served by competing for a representation in the democratic institutions.

MET's picture

1. Do we really have European citizens who care about the European Union as much as about their nation states? Yes and no. I think most European citizens do not care about either the EU or their nation states per se. The question they pose is: who does more for me, the EU or my country? Eurobarometer research has been continuously proving that people are aware that many problems can  be solved only at European level, while other issues are best handled with on a national or even sub-national level. Most people are not die-hard federalists or nationalists, but somewhat in between. The problem arises when Europe does not deliver the way many people have expected (e.g. grabbing enough vaccines), or when nationalistic politicians despise or deny even successful European projects. This contradiction can be overcome by maximum transparency of actions on the European level and free media on the national level, so that citizens can decide for themselves, who did what and how well. In this case they will be convinced that Europe is just as important for them as their own country.

2. Why the lies of Leave were believed during the Brexit-campaign? Regarding Brexit, I think one should not forget history preceding it. The UK did not figure among the founding member states of the EU. Later its application was twice vetoed by France. After accession the UK was very keen on building the single market, but was  weary of federalist ideas (single currency, political union). The bigger part of the British press has always been wildly eurosceptic. During the Brexit-campaign the political elite did not put real effort in defending and explaining the advantages of the UK remaining in the EU: the Tories were devided and afraid of the Brexit-party and the Labour-party was the hostage of its leader Jeremy Corbyn who was himself a eurosceptic. In light of all this it is even surprising that Brexiteers have won only by a small margin, and proves that with just a little bit of more effort on the part of the Cameron-government the result could have been the opposite.

How far should liberals go in understanding anti-liberal views? Quite far. First af all, when liberals speak out they should be clear what they mean about being liberal. Does it mean that the state should never interfere in the market? In what cases and to what extent should the state interfere? What about social rights? Should they be left to the agreements of employers and employees, or should the state set some limits or guidelines? What about cultural identities? Should the state allow all migrants of all backgrounds enter the country or should there be some limits? Should decisions on abortions and euthanasia left to the individuals and doctors or should there be laws on them? Before entering any discussion liberals should decide their standpoints on these issues for themselves, becuse without it they will be left with no arguments when confronted by antiliberals. But if they know their own liberal identities in depth, liberals should engage in detailed and tolerant discussion with antiliberals and in many cases they will discover that people can be convinced. Liberals should also accept though that not ALL people can be convinced. Liberalism is more a rational than an emotional state of mind, and for some people rational arguments are difficult to accept over their emotions.

3. Balance between citizen activism and representative democracy. I think a rule of thumb should be that the more people are affected by a certain decision the more representative democracy should be. Citizens should directly vote where the bus-routes run in a town. On the other hand Europe-wide referendums are difficult to fathom on any question apart of e.g. whether the EU should join the US. At the same time citizen activism should be very important in organizing elections: these procedures should not be left merely to the agreement of political parties, and elections should also be supervised by the civil society. As a basic rule, in a liberal democracy citizens should be able to organise themselves the way they want and for the issues they deem important for themselves as long as they do it in a transparent way within the limits of law.

Hegedűs István's picture

1. Shrinking space for civil activism: this expression is a perfect description especially for the state of the game for NGO-s and active citizens in countries like Hungary where illiberal populist governments rule and have introduced new measures, changed laws parallel with nation-wide propagandistic smear campaigns against “foreign agents”, “mercenaries” of George Soros, and other so-called enemies. Stigmatisation and often exclusion, discrimination is part of the arsenal that the Orbán government has used against liberal-minded civil groups with a chilling effect to the broader public and electorate. 
2. Still, pressure comes together with resistance. Civil groups, communities, cities, regions and individuals often react with courage and have their own tools to protest and to find their ways even successfully block the government’s intentions, or, to express, at least, their indignation and alternative views. Co-operation amongst civil actors as well as international solidarity help a lot keeping their spirit and commitment at a high level. 
3. Meanwhile in traditional liberal democracies, NGO-s and grass-root organisations are claiming that their involvement in political processes and decision-making is not satisfactory and acceptable in the circumstance of the 21st century any more. This is especially the case at European level where there is an increasing pressure on EU institutions and member states to listen to the voice of citizens and their representatives who want to be present at the talks of the new conference on the future of Europe starting finally on 9 May this year.
4. So, civil participation is strongly connected to its political, often partisan environment. This is a particularly exciting new era when civil activism, direct democracy and representative democracy are all present in healthy political societies. Here conflicts and tensions are natural and one of the key issues is to be discussed how civil groups can participate in political processes in order to find solutions to complex social and political problems.
5. Global conditions have changed a lot recently. Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump created a momentum for anti-liberal political forces. Now transatlantic relations seem to return to normal. There is a new chance for political reforms and for the inclusion of civic actors and citizens worldwide showing that there is a strong and successful alternative to populist, authoritarian claims. 

 

Pages

Uncertain Times: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations from the Perspective of NGOs and Think Tanks in Central Europe and Hungary

- online webinar series organised by the Hungarian Europe Society -

First Debate: Media freedom and media pluralism: the role...

Uncertain Times: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations from the Perspective of NGOs and Think Tanks in Central Europe and Hungary
- online webinar series organised by the Hungarian Europe Society -
Second Debate: Transatlantic ties: American - (Central)...

Uncertain Times: The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations from the Perspective of NGOs and Think Tanks in Central Europe and Hungary
- online webinar series organised by the Hungarian Europe Society -
Third Debate - The future of liberal democracies: The rise...