Democracy at crossroads

Europe's lasting struggle for democracy, marked by substantial progress since the 1970s, faces a serious setback with democratic principles under threat. This regression highlights the need for concerted action from both governments and civil society organisations to uphold Europe's democratic values. This is where the EEA and Norway Grants play a pivotal role by funding projects that support civil society, human rights, and inclusive societies.

The (long) fight for democracy in Europe    

In recent years, Europe and most other parts of the world have seen an unsettling trend of democratic backsliding – with democracy retreating and autocracy gaining. Democratic backsliding is not only connected to electoral problems, but also related to other political elements such as the infringement of individual rights and freedom of expression. These challenges threaten the core of Europe’s democratic woes, and the foundational principles of the European Union.  

According to Carnegie Europe, the level of democracy in Europe has fallen back forty years, to where it was in 1978. Over the last decade, there have been some trends across Europe that threaten our progress: from shrinking civic space, to the political success of populist, nationalists and authoritarian groups, legislative backslash against the rights of women and minorities and continued social exclusion of groups in vulnerable situations, just to name a few. The rise of digital technology has exacerbated some of these problems, with the digital gap between people online and offline breeding a new kind of civic exclusion and hate speech.  

These challenges, among many others, underscore the need for urgent action to preserve Europe’s commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law. That is where the EEA and Norway Grants play a critical role in the fight for democracy in Europe. 

Youth discussing about civic space during one of the activities of the ‘Placemaking for democracy’ project in Bulgaria. ©BG Be Active  

Joining forces to save democracy 

Through the Grants, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway contribute to a more democratic and inclusive Europe. The Grants are based on shared European values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Making sure that younger generations are better equipped for the future, that marginalised groups are empowered, and that institutions are transparent and just are the fundamental drivers of the programmes supported by the EEA and Norway Grants.  

The Grants stand out compared to other funding sources in many of these areas. For instance, the Active Citizens Fund is one of the largest funding sources for democracy and human rights organisations in many EU countries, providing rare support for advocacy and watchdog activities. But the funding goes beyond the Active Citizens Fund. 

The Active Citizens Fund is all about supporting civil society, and civil society is a key actor in protecting vulnerable groups in society, including minorities. That's why it's so important for the EEA and Norway Grants to support this. The Grants is not the biggest fund operating in this market, but we are strong enough to make a difference. Jon Erik Strømø, Director, Section for Central Europe and EEA and Norway Grants, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

In areas such as asylum and migration, gender-based violence or correctional services, the EEA and Norway Grants facilitate unique models focusing on human rights and human dignity. One more area to highlight is Roma inclusion and empowerment, where the Grants finance flagship programmes and projects that apply a systemic, flexible, and integrated approach, with investments in both infrastructure and services. These areas – and many more – were at the centre of all the discussions that took place at the Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna this week. A space where human rights actors came together to discuss about the future of our democracy - and the EEA and Norway Grants were part of it too.

#RightsForum2024 and the future of our societies