By Dr Rupert Graf Strachwitz
Dr. Rupert Graf Strachwitz is a political scientist. He is the executive director of the Maecenata Foundation, a think tank that focusses on international civil society and philanthropy, and director of the foundation’s research and policy centre, the Maecenata Institute, in Berlin, Germany.
The civic space in European countries as elsewhere has grown beyond all expectations over the last generation or so, but it is seemingly in danger of shrinking or even closing due to state intervention. This paper will argue that while the danger is there, there is no reason to believe this will actually happen.
It is certainly true to say that for the past 30 years the civic space and the civil society actors who move within this space have gained considerably both in visibility and in soft power. While the human and civil rights movements in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s may still seem to be most successful ones in that they actually wrote world history, we have since witnessed a continuing succession of instances, where the momentum that changed the course of politics emerged from the civic space. Take Fridays for Future as an example of a civic movement propelling an important societal challenge from the bottom to the top of the political agenda. Whether civic action is successful or not in any specific instance, it certainly has become a factor to be reckoned with in any planning and/or policy process. A new railway station in Stuttgart (“Stuttgart 21”), the fake reelection of Alexander Lukashenko as President of Belarus, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union (“Brexit”), ending the two systems model in Hongkong, and a plethora of other developments have prompted citizens to take to the streets in droves, voicing their concerns and demands. They mobilize forces they command in resisting an increasingly encroaching state set on regulation and control rather than participation, and make good use of the revolution in communication.
This civic space has never ceased to be contested. The tradition of Hobbes, Hegel, and others, in fact the whole concept of the nation state as developed from the 16th to the 20th century, hinged on the supreme authority of any state. The idea that other collectives should play a truly participative, let alone a decisive role in the political game, has remained anathema to most of its representatives, even more, as the new role the citizens have taken on has gained additional clout from a new analytical view of the actors involved. The civic space and the social sciences have helped each other grow, since American academics coined the term civil society in its present sense in the late 20th century. While protest movements had existed in Europe for many centuries, grouping them together with other activities as one civic space or as civil society with features that distinguish them from other actors in the public space (Strachwitz 2021), notably the state and the market, has not only enabled research and policy to take a systematic approach, but has also paved the way for added thrust – and a downscaling of the state’s position. Large traditional membership organisations, sports clubs, local volunteer groups, informal protest movements and many others see themselves in a common arena termed civil society today that dominates the civic space, aided, but also increasingly challenged by spontaneous and short-lived movements of engaged individual citizens (Youngs et al. 2022). A sense of belonging, identity and loyalty has emerged that surpasses loyalty to the nation state. This has enabled new alliances to be formed. While formerly, national umbrella organisations served members with more or less the same goals and outlook, today varying coalitions of the like-minded act as watch-dogs against violations of human and civil rights and infringements on civil liberties and lobby transnationally for legislation, funding or specific interests. Striking examples include the action taken against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, when 525 very diverse organisations from all over Europe (Kaibel 2022, 27) united in trying to stop it – successfully, as it turned out. Protest also regularly accompanies government conferences under G-7, G-20, and similar headings, when individual citizens from all over Europe join up, regardless of their nationality (Edlefsen and Strachwitz 2017: 3).
It is hardly surprising that the political establishment has not looked favourably on this fast-growing competitor for political leadership, and while in the early 2000s, governments and business leaders were prone to believe this was just a passing fashion, they have come to realize that this was a misjudgement. Political parties, governments, state bureaucracies, and even parliaments and the judiciary have since busied themselves in devising methods to reign in what they feel are unwelcome intruders into the public space. The shrinking civic space has become a catchword. While the methods and instruments applied by authoritarian governments are infinitely more brutal and devastating than those used in liberal democracies, and very often entail blatant violations of human and civil rights, there can be no doubt that the basic dislike for the civic space as an additional powerful player in the public sphere beside the state is not fundamentally different in any political system. That democracies had grudgingly had to accept the private business sector as an extremely powerful contributor to public affairs in the past 50 years, has not added to their willingness to accept a third arena. A whole range of measures has been developed to exercise authority and control over the civic space, including (Ayvazyan 2019: 8-9):
A broad range of investigative studies have supplied examples and proof for each and every one of these measures. They have been made easier by poor media attention and scant public awareness of the problem (Bouchet and Wachsmann 2019: 2).
At the bottom of all this lies the problem that governments and their dependants have never ceased to believe they are in full command when it comes to devising, deciding upon, and executing policy. They have not grasped that this is not only a dated concept not fit to meet the challenges the world is facing in the 21st century, but also a fallacy which in the real world has long been substituted by complex arrangements between diverse actors. Nor have they understood what deliberative democracy is about. They are fooled by the paraphernalia of power and use the huge financial resources they command to preserve an order that has outlived its function. Attempting to change this mindset continues to be an uphill battle. At present, most states, strangely enough supported by the media, are ready to accept that a vibrant civic space exists abroad, say in Ukraine, but not at home, where they continue to imagine it could be reduced to volunteers supporting the government in providing assistance to people in need.
Perseverance and resilience are called for in mobilizing the citizens to keep a watchful eye on the size and scope of their space. Citizens and civil society watchdogs yet need to improve on their arguments and methods in doing so. They need to create awareness that an active civic space is the precondition to an open society, not vice versa and more than that: It is the prime vehicle for fighting authoritarian and populist assaults. Given that citizens are better educated than ever before, have learnt to appreciate their freedom, have experienced the effects of active intervention, have undergone global learning experiences, continue to learn from practices elsewhere, and have access to means of communication that they are better at using than government bodies, there is every reason to believe that the civic space will survive. Specific challenges notwithstanding, the “metaverse” is a strong ally. For history tells us that at the end of the day, unorganised processes drive change, and chaos will always survive order. All the citizens need to do is get their act together, and systems looked upon as eternal will be doomed.
Karen Ayvazyan (2019): The Shrinking Space of Civil Society: A Report on Trends, Responses, and the Role of Donors. Berlin: Maecenata (Opusculum no. 128)
Nicolas Bouchet and Inga Wachsmann (2019): A Matter of Precaution – Watching the Shrinking Civic Space in Western Europe. Berlin: Maecenata (Observatorium no. 29)
Markus Edlefsen / Rupert Graf Strachwitz (2017): Der Hamburger G-20-Gipfel vom 7./8. Juli 2017. Ein Rückblick aus zivilgesellschaftlicher Perspektive. Berlin: Maecenata (Observatorium Nr. 16)
Cosima Kaibel (2022): Inwiefern hat sich die Zusammenarbeit in der Zivilgesellschaft mit TTIP verändert? Berlin: Maece-nata (Opusculum Nr. 162)
Rupert Graf Strachwitz (2021): What is Civil Society? A Primer. Berlin: Maecenata (Opusculum no. 160)
Richard Youngs / Niccolo Milanese / Kalypso Nicolaidis (2022): Informal Civil Society: A Booster for Euro-pean Democracy? https://carnegieeurope.eu/2022/03/23/informal-civil-society-booster-for-european-democracy-pub-86665