The global phenomenon of “closing” or “shrinking” space for civil society has been identified and increasingly analyzed since at least the beginning of the 2000s. In Europe, the focus has been on what has been happening in countries of Central and Eastern Europe or of the Balkans; by contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to developments in the continent’s older, established democracies.
However, according to the NGO Civicus, civic space is now “narrowed” in 12 countries across the EU (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom) and “obstructed” in one (Hungary).
Even if in Western Europe there is no close threat of a takeover of authoritarian or undemocratic political actors winning power, it is nevertheless important to gauge the risk level in different countries and to watch out for any eventual links between restrictions on civil society and growing extremism or securitization of the public discourse on fundamental rights. This is necessary in order to stop violations of civic freedoms where they have started, and to anticipate and prevent them where possible. Furthermore, if external support to civil society has been a vital response to shrinking space globally, there is a question mark over who would play this helping role should such a situation start developing in Western European countries where many external supporters of civil society are themselves based.
In this paper, Nicolas Bouchet and Inga Wachsmann analyze the situation and try to detect early signs of closing space, studying specific examples in France, Germany and the UK.