Opinion Piece (CoFoE): The Involvement of the Civil Society in the Decision-Making System
When civil society is considered a threat, we have to say goodbye to misleading presumptions
Daniel Apaydin (Neubacher)
In July 2021, Hungary’s prime minister distributed his “demands” for the future of Europe as advertisements in several European dailies. One of them deals with the role of non-governmental (NGOs). According to Viktor Orbán, too many decisions are made by NGOs. As we have observed it before, the prime minister uses exaggerations, emotionalization, misleading information and other populist means to strengthen the narrative of transnational actors such as the EU institutions, international and NGOs as a threat to Hungary’s national interests. Nevertheless, as an experienced politician Orbán always bases his critics on legitimate issues. Disregarding the exaggeration, the Hungarian government addressed an existing tension relationship: On the one hand, we have powerful supranational structures like lobbies and including the WTO, the ECB and civil society (CSOs) that shape, advocate and follow certain political agenda. On the other hand, as their leading decision-makers are not elected by the European electorate they lack democratic legitimization.
The outsourcing of problem-solving capacities to the supranational level is rooted in the formative experiences of the First and Second World War as well as in the trustful hope to assure peace in the following. With more regulation power and influence of supranational structures, the national governments’ power has decreased. Parallelly, social movements and their leading organizations have tremendously gained momentum and professionalized since the 1980s – also under major influence from western actors. The supranational structures have become a major addressee for CSOs. EU institutions, NGOs and international organizations have often been used for mediation in domestic conflicts, or to apply international pressure on governments.
One needs to understand that current EU policies are based on long-lasting presumptions and experiences that are not necessarily shared by all member states. For example, the histories of civil society in Western and Eastern European countries differ in many ways. When considering these different paths, we can explain better why the prime minister’s harsh rhetoric against NGOs find such a fertile breeding ground. In Hungary, the concept of NGOs and independent associations is comparably young and strongly shaped by the western model. Therefore, many perceive established NGOs as imported hence foreign subjects. In addition, the self-image of domestic civil society actors is deeply rooted in the ideas of . In many post-soviet countries, the so-called third sector suffers from decades of collective mistrust towards any form of civil engagement. When tackling current issues of participation and democratization, these legacies have to be taken into account. This starts with understanding the differing connotations of civil society terminology. Undoubtedly, the EU needs to strengthen the stability and independence of civil society actors, in particular their strategic litigation to uphold Human Rights. When tackling the civic spaces and developing policies, the EU must consider domestic contexts better. For this, the EU needs to include the local actors more in shaping policies in order to say goodbye to western-centric presumptions and foster comparative civil society research with long-term perspectives.
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