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In Search of European Civil Society

Civil society has a defining role in Europe's past and present – but is there consensus on what it is, and how it should function? A ifa study explores what civil society means across – and for – the continent.


As a term, 'civil society' has only really gained traction in the last three decades. As a phenomenon, civil society has been recognised since antiquity. From large-scale social movements and centuries' old charitable organisations through to workers' clubs, civil rights watchdogs, and self-help initiatives, citizens in every cultural context have long acted in and shaped their society through organisations and institutions separate from the market and the state.

In Europe, this 'third arena' of public space asserted triumphant agency with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have since proliferated - both in their number and activities, and as a subject of academic and political interest.

Today, with digitisation, instant communication, and the widespread use of English as 'lingua franca', CSOs have further scaled up their activities within and beyond national borders. But what does the European civil society landscape look like?

A Definitional Dilemma

For all the consolidation of civil society in the last 30 years, there remains no congruent, universally-accepted definition of what civil society is. A generally working definition understands it as a sphere of numerous movements, organisations and institutions - differently composed, and with differing objectives and sizes - but sharing common characteristics which distinguish them from the state and the market. These characteristics include self-empowerment, self-organisation and voluntary development, concern for the public interest, and priorities other than profit.

Nevertheless, senior EU bodies, not least the European Commission and European Economic and Social Committee, and the national governments of EU member states, all base their understanding of civil society on differing concepts. It is contested, for example, whether political parties, trade unions and religious communities should be included within the civil society bracket. In other contexts, 'civil society' is used as a synonym for professional lobbyists surrounding the European Commission.

These competing definitions at EU level are mirrored by international disparities in the self-perception, organisational structure, and fields of operation of civil society organisations. Differences in legal and fiscal frameworks, not least in the treatment of donations, have significant impact on CSO activity from country to country. Historic experience, the parameters and perceptions of the state, and actual needs on the ground likewise shape striking differences in CSO scope, priorities, and their extent of cooperation or conflict with the market and the state.

The Weight of History

Fascism, communism, democratic transition, austerity politics, and the Churches have all imprinted Europe's civil society map. In Eastern Europe, CSO efforts remain focused on democratic transition – on freedom, the rule of law, human and civil rights, and other socio-political objectives. In Western Europe, CSOs tend to concentrate on the social, educational and cultural sectors.

In the Benelux states (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), where civil society played an integral role in the postwar development of social welfare, CSOs frequently collaborate with state actors. In the Baltics, by contrast, civil society actors face a more antagonistic relationship with the state, struggling with financial and administrative hurdles and the reduction, to some extent, of state funding. In the former Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine, CSOs grapple with even more significant restrictions.

In Southern Europe, the financial crisis of 2008 and migrant arrivals since 2015 have created heightened populism and regionalism on the one hand, and a broader civil society mobilisation on the other. In Poland and Hungary, the ascent of nationalist authoritarian regimes and growing sway of the Catholic Church has significantly curtailed CSO activity – particularly those advocating for the rights of sexual, ethnic minorities, or women's movements.

Shrink Factors

Today, the expressions 'shrinking civic space' and 'shrinking space for civil society' characterise such civil society restrictions. Increasing repression is evident not only in countries where more authoritarian structures have developed, but also in classic Western European democracies. In both France and Great Britain, for example, critical voices from civil society are being dealt with in an increasingly repressive manner, with freedoms of press, assembly, and association being curtailed.

In the wake of 9/11, the civil society sector has widely been portrayed as a hotbed of harmful activities. Non-profit organisations have been subject to increasing suspicion and scrutiny, and various forms of governmental harassment. Nationalist and authoritarian regimes have jumped on the catchphrase 'foreign agents' to malign CSO activity.

In addition to these external challenges and threats, some CSOs also face obstacles in wider societal and lifestyle changes and more individualised value sets, which limit participation in groups or organisations. Lifelong affiliations that were once commonplace – such as to a religious association, the Red Cross or the local fire brigade, are rarely found today.

Towards a Transnational Future

While CSOs across Europe navigate these nation-specific histories, circumstances, and constraints, a transnational, European civil society is nevertheless taking shape. Younger organisations, exemplified by Fridays for Future, coordinate across borders and easily adapt to different national frameworks in pursuit of a unified European mission.

New CSOs are opening up flexible and expansive possibilities for participation. Digital communication advances have spawned spontaneous and cross-border initiatives, independent of umbrella structures. Both the 2015 migration crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that CSOs are highly flexible to emerging circumstances, often stepping in where state and market actors have failed.

So, too, must CSOs be seen as integral to the emergence of Europe. While political parties and public administrations variously attempt to channel, control, or curb civil society, it is only with the creative power and influence of CSOs that Europe can evolve and administer necessary changes, take citizens on board, and thrive as a functioning democracy.


Editors and Authors
Eliza Apperly
Author, producer and editor

Eliza Apperly produces and presents for the BBC, Thames and Hudson, the Global Public Policy Institute, the Max Planck Society or the European Council on Foreign Relations. Her writing has been published or quoted in numerous media outlets including The Guardian, The Atlantic, Internazionale and Reuters, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times. Eliza studied modern languages and literature at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has taught workshops on journalism and production at Bard College Berlin, the University of Bristol and the University of Cambridge.

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In the research programme "Culture and Foreign Policy" and the programme line "Research" of the Martin Roth Initiative, experts investigate current issues of foreign cultural and educational policy. The research programmes set topics and develop recommendations to strengthen and further develop international cultural relations. The research assignments are accompanied by conferences and workshops. The research results are published in the ifa edition Culture and Foreign Policy, as ifa Input or as Policy Brief.
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