As we emerge out of a lockdown with millions of people globally protesting against inequalities, we need to take a stand for the kind of societies we want to live in, and the kind of recovery and democracy we want to have. Pro-European activists Paulina Fröhlich and Omri Preiss on why we need civic engagement now more than ever.
Taking a stand requires connection, cooperation, and solidarity. This is why we are setting up an online civic tech platform: the European Hub for Civic Engagement, which is supported by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. We want to connect and empower civil society actors for a more inclusive and healthy democracy. Across Europe and around the world, we’ve seen the extraordinary sight of empty streets and closed shops turn into images of marches and demonstrations. More than ever, we’ve relied on technology to stay connected, and more than ever it has become clear that we need to work together to solve common problems and tackle common threats. As societies are beginning to re-open, how we recover from this crisis – and what learnings we will take into the future – will be key to going forward.
Responsible Leaders Table "Collaborating for a Democratic Europe"
The BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Table (July 1–3, 2020) brings together like-minded non-state actors from across Europe for a digital leadership program guided by the theme of trust-building and bonding. This event is co-organized with our partners, the Alliance4Europe, who promote active citizenship and democratic values by connecting activists across Europe, and Das Progressive Zentrum, who aim at strengthening democratic dialogue within Germany and across borders.
The BMW Foundation promotes responsible leadership and inspires leaders worldwide to work towards a peaceful, just, and sustainable future in accordance with the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Rooted in Germany and active all over the world, the BMW Foundation is taking a clear stance for the principles and goals of a united, strong, and people-driven Europe.
At this critical time, we are seeing millions of people around the world marching for justice and fundamental rights. Meanwhile, some European leaders are having more difficulty showing solidarity, engaging instead in reheating old debates about the Eurozone. That may be because they are entirely focused on their own national publics, and they seem to believe that these publics do not want change.
Given that citizens have expressed their views by singing and clapping from their balconies, volunteering, donating, marching, and taking care of each other, it could be that some politicians are misreading their electorate. The history and legacy of globalization is a complex and troubled one – we are not just facing a virus; we have to deal with a long history of structural racism, injustice, inequality, and the exploitation of our planet. Still, there is hope: We can survive these crises and come out stronger by coming together. We urgently need civil society and citizen engagement to play a leading role in shaping a sustainable, healthy, and inclusive recovery, but that means dealing with a legacy of shrinking democratic spaces in the past few years.
In many countries around the world, including in EU member states, part of the response to the coronavirus has been to restrict freedoms and individual rights, and limit the accountability of governments to democratic institutions. Authoritarian leaders have taken the opportunity to grab power while disinformation about the virus has spread like wildfire. It is clear that mankind is at a turning point. From Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and elsewhere to pro-democracy protests in Hong-Kong, people are taking a stand.
"In many countries around the world, including in EU member states, part of the response to the coronavirus has been to restrict freedoms and individual rights."
Civil society is the backbone of democracy, especially in times of crisis. NGOs and social movements function as the watchdogs that hold institutions to account in order to prevent abuse and to drive the public agenda forward. Charities, civil society groups, and local activists are working with the most vulnerable members of society, delivering relief, support, education, training, legal aid, and a range of activities, often filling in the gaps where the public and private sectors fail.
The health of our civil society can be taken as a measure for the health of our society as a whole. Given years of rising authoritarianism, lack of funding, and increased threats to activists and organizations, European civil society was under pressure even before this crisis, which is why it is so urgent to restore its health now.
About the Authors
Paulina Fröhlich is head of the Future of Democracy program at Das Progressive Zentrum, where she directs innovative projects aimed at fostering citizen dialogues, such as “Europa hört – eine Dialogreise.” Her work also includes projects dedicated to creating a roadmap for dealing with anti-democratic populism.
Omri Preiss is managing director and co-founder of Alliance4Europe. He previously worked as a Policy Advisor at the European Parliament and as EU Advocacy Officer for Front Line Defenders, a non-profit working to protect human rights defenders.
This is why Das Progressive Zentrum, Alliance4Europe, and Citizens for Europe – with the support of a range of partners, including the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt – are working to set up the European Hub for Civic Engagement. This is an online platform that will enable civil society actors across the continent to connect, build partnerships, and share resources, tools, and information. We will be using technology to come together and bringing civic tech solutions to individuals and organizations, from local communities to large European networks.
The Hub is a co-creation process and as such an expression of solidarity among active citizens. We are working on the basis of added-value, looking at what civil society actors really need, following an extensive process of interviews, workshops, and direct engagement. Many civil society networks already exist, and there have been many attempts at building connections in the past. We are working to build on those experiences and to connect existing networks, not to replace previous efforts or reinvent the wheel.
"The Hub is a co-creation process and as such an expression of solidarity among active citizens."
Now is the time to build and regenerate, and so throughout 2020, the Hub partners will be working with developers and a growing group of test users to set up and populate the online platform, where online connection will drive vibrant offline action and impact (with physical meetings depending on health guidelines, of course). We are issuing an open call to organizations and developers across Europe to join us in building the Hub Community.
We can only tackle these challenges and build a healthy sustainable society if we have a proactive democracy based on civic engagement. So join us on this journey to build the European Hub for Civic Engagement and don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to get involved.