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Ahead of the EU Elections 2024 | 4 | EU external democracy and civic space support


The “geopolitical” European Commission of President Ursula von der Leyen has been plagued by external crises, namely the Russian War of Aggression in Ukraine, the Israel-Gaza conflict and recurrent coups in the Sahel. In this context, norms and values have often been compromised in the name of security, migration, trade and other geopolitical priorities. 

Meanwhile, the democratic decline is continuing, according to the majority of indexes and metrics, and civic liberties are being restricted as a result. All around the world, both autocratic and democratic governments are imposing restrictions on civil society to silence their voices. Citizens, civil society organisations and human rights defenders continue to be excluded from decision-making processes in many places, disregarding their knowledge, expertise and lived experiences through restrictive legislation and practices making them unable to fully exercise their rights and freedoms.

Young people particularly are increasingly turning away from democratic ideals after witnessing years of dysfunctional democratic processes. Several metrics pin them down as more radical and prone to support autocratic leaders than other age groups. It is fundamental to address this trend for future generations to act as defenders of democracy. 

The EU has been both proactive and reactive in dealing with these trends. At DG International Partnerships (DG INTPA), the 2019-2024 mandate was marked by a strong focus on youth issues in the EU’s international development agenda. INTPA Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen made youth empowerment a priority of her mandate.  The Russian War of Aggression in Ukraine prompted the EU to become more vocal in its defence of democratic values, albeit mainly through diplomacy. 


Streamlining democracy and civic space protection in foreign policy

The EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy, published in 2020, has the stated objective of promoting a global system favourable to human rights and democracy. Yet, the EU has a mixed record in applying these values when deciding its priorities in foreign policy. Security, migration and trade concerns pile up in the European neighbourhood and beyond, but the EU should not lose sight of its commitments to uphold human rights and democracy. Supporting these values worldwide is more than just about being a responsible international actor, it also serves the EU’s own strategic interests. 

Supporting civic spaces abroad

The EU has deepened its commitment to address the closing of civic space and foster an enabling environment for civil society, through reinforced policy commitments and by taking significant steps both globally and in partner countries. The CSO Thematic Programme under the current MFF 2021-2027 places a stronger focus on an enabling environment, with many calls and projects launched in this area. 2024 also saw the start of the EU SEE project (EU System for an Enabling Environment), a project to monitor and respond to changes in the enabling environment for civic space that will eventually cover more than 80 countries.

Support for youth-led initiatives and women in politics

The 2019-2024 policy cycle of the European Commission saw landmark progress in terms of advancing the political participation of youth and women. In 2021, the European Gender Action Plan (GAP) III was adopted to promote gender equality through European external action. It also saw the launch of the Women and Youth in Democracy Initiative (WYDE), with a €40 million package to strengthen the rights and participation in public and political life of youth and women, and the Youth Empowerment Fund (YEF), a €10 million pilot initiative to fund youth-led projects in sustainable development. 

Enhancing youth input in EU external policies

In 2021, the European Commission launched the Youth Sounding Board (YSB), a group of 25 young people from non-EU countries with a 2-year mandate to advise Commissioner Urpilainen and the Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) on issues related to youth in external action. The YSB has co-created the EU Youth Action Plan and informed DG INTPA’s programming priorities on youth. The second Cohort of the YSB was selected in 2023 and parallel YSB structures have been developed in certain EU Delegations. 

Increasing civil society oversight in connectivity strategy

The European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) have a tradition of organising recurring consultations with civil society stakeholders in different formats, such as the review of Action Plans and dialogues with third parties. For the Global Gateway, the EU set up the CSO Dialogue Platform to engage with interested parties and stakeholders and has held meetings on Global Gateway with civil society in the framework of the Policy Forum on Development. 

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash.