Coming together and building a better EU future: The role of civil society in the response to COVID-19

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We need to reform the political, health, and social systems. The crisis clearly highlighted structured inequalities in the way these systems are organised and the need not just for their 'reboot', but for a complete debug.

Raia Mihaylova


Communication and Outreach Coordinator at the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).

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Think back to last December. There was something else in the air then – a shared feeling that 2020 will bring positive change in Europe, that it will be the year when the build-up of citizen movements results in much-needed systemic reform. We now know it as the year of the COVID-19 epidemic, but ironically, with all its tragedy the crisis has become an “advocate” for those same demands for change.

To meet them, the response to COVID-19 should be one of recovery AND reconstruction. On the one hand, we need to actively safeguard the European Union’s fundamental rights and freedoms impacted by the initial health-safety measures put in place. While certain restrictions were necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus, some governments implemented ‘emergency policies’ that limited citizens’ ability to hold them accountable.

On the other hand, while addressing the economical consequences, we need to reform the political, health, and social systems. The crisis clearly highlighted structured inequalities in the way these systems are organised and the need not just for their “reboot”, but for a complete debug.

For the above to be approached effectively, the “we” referred to in both cases above must include all stakeholders – from the European institutions and Member States to businesses, academia, and civil society, as the bridge between institutions and citizens. The role of the latter has become even more prominent throughout the crisis, with organisations being quick to mobilise themselves and react to citizens’ needs as they evolved. The examples are many, such as Your Europe Advice, a free legal advice online service run by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) on behalf of the European Commission. As EU citizens faced new challenges to their freedom of movement rights, ECAS’ legal experts were able to provide them with specific information on how to cope with the difficulties. Areas of concern include cross-border health care, consumer and passenger rights, social benefits, residential issues, and other related rights.

Going forward, civil society organisations (CSOs) can ensure that citizens’ input feeds into the EU reform process. With their concrete knowledge of the situation on the ground, and because they mobilise citizens on key societal issues and empower them to speak up for their rights, they can better target the needs of vulnerable groups. This puts them in position to make recommendations to Member States and the European institutions on how to design a course that will benefit the well-being of citizens.

On this note, ECAS is launching an in-depth research project on the experience of citizens related to their freedom of movement rights in the COVID-19 situation. The results will feed into a policy paper featuring recommendations about the role of civil society organisations in the post-crisis era. 

Though such input is crucial to the re-building process, civil society has largely been excluded from the discussions. This concern was voiced in a letter to the Presidents of the European institutions, drafted by Civil Society Europe (CSE) and signed by 52 platforms of non-governmental organisations. Sent out prior to the European Council meeting on June 19th, during which the EU Recovery Plan was discussed, the participating CSOs listed the arguments for why their contribution is absolutely necessary. The letter can be viewed here.

The EU can enable the conditions for an independent, vibrant and pluralist civil society by recognising its critical role and by ensuring that it can continue to exist and grow. This can be done by enhancing civil dialogue on the basis of Article 11 of the Treaty through a specific agreement among EU institutions and ensuring that civil society is part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. More funding support is critical and EU programmes promoting civic, social, cultural, educational, environmental engagement and volunteering must be reinforced. Furthermore, civil society organisations at local, regional and national level must be able to fully benefit directly from the European Recovery Plan flagship programmes.

All this can lead to having a coordinated approach based on regenerating the European project around the shared values of Equality, Solidarity, Inclusiveness and Democracy. In these current times of ‘history in the making’, only by coming together and playing on each others’ strengths can we go about building a better EU future.

CSE has collected on its website the numerous initiatives of European networks of Civil Society Organisations and their members to counter the pandemic and help people, as well as their proposals to the .authorities to find solutions to the consequences of the crisis.

Authors: Carlotta Besozzi, Civil Society Europe (CSE) and Raia Mihaylova, European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).

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