Brexit isn’t an end to UK-European civil society collaboration

9 January 2018
Author: Claire Godfrey

Brexit presents a multitude of challenges for civil society organisations (CSOs), from advocacy to funding. History has often shown us that opportunity can lie in the face of adversity. To strengthen the force of the UK’s international development sector, we looked into the options for collaboration between UK-European CSOs in preparation for the UK’s departure from the EU. 

Bond’s latest report, Options for maximising UK-European civil society collaboration in a Brexit context, analyses the challenges posed by the prospective exit of one of the EU’s biggest members on UK and other European development CSOs, as well as the broader common struggles development CSOs currently face across Europe. The report also seizes on opportunities to propose options for future collaboration to help mitigate today’s challenges.

“What will Brexit mean for you?” I asked many people this question, including civil society representatives from national CSO organisations, CSO families and networks, and EU development and humanitarian experts across Europe (inside and outside the EU). 

Many of those outside the UK initially responded that it won’t make a big difference and they have got their own problems. Various countries across Europe are undergoing their own manifestations of political or economic turmoil that are having detrimental effects on CSOs' operations. But after digging deeper two points clearly emerged. 

First, despite different national contexts, development CSOs face common challenges across Europe. These for the most part relate to austerity measures leading to government funding cuts to CSOs, and other repressive measures imposed by some governments to restrict the voice of CSOs in public debate. CSOs have tended to respond cautiously to maintain their resource. As a result, there is a trend towards CSOs becoming instruments within the aid delivery system, and away from being agitators who hold governments to public account. The upshot is that the sector is in the midst of an existential conundrum. 

This is essential context to understand the response needed to the second point that emerged: the potentially harmful impact of Brexit on development and the sector. Undoubtedly, the departure of one of the biggest and most influential EU donors will reduce the size, relevance and impact of development policy and spending within EU external policy, and beyond. But the resulting diminution of UK CSO influence on EU policy-making and practice expanding the spectrum of the EU’s external agenda will be substantial. 

Nevertheless, forging initiatives that respond to the sector’s internal and external challenges can lock CSOs together to build a stronger force to achieve its common goals. There are three areas that provide options for strengthened collaborations: 

Vision and purpose

  • Define a vision and compelling narrative that promotes global solidarity, multilateralism, and democratic public accountability as a frame for CSO messaging and to create political space to achieve common development and humanitarian goals. 
  • Intensify collaboration on priority issues to protect development norms, standards and objectives (focus on poverty, effectiveness principles) in aid-related development policy, and join together in a cross European effort to champion aid and development more forcefully in public. 

Practical action to build collaboration

  • Build a European activists network of CSO national activists’ groups mobilising around one common cause and goal that resonates with European and global citizens. 
  • Establish training exchanges through sharing learning, tools and techniques in areas like governance and effectiveness, fundraising and donor management, using new technology, and new media, sharing methodology, toolkits etc. 

Ways of working in a Brexit context

  • European, not EU, CSOs collaborating as a wider Europe beyond EU-specific policy. 
  • National platform collaboration to cover wider European strategic development for the development and humanitarian CSO sector. 

UK CSOs have a long and established tradition of being a strong and effective force for change in the EU - and Europe more widely. Their reduced role will hurt the sector. Brexit is but one of the challenges faced by CSOs in European countries. Closer collaboration across European CSOs is as necessary to mitigate any potential damage on CSO influence from Brexit, as it is to countervail an emergent political consensus from further retrogressing development cooperation, and weakening development and the role of CSOs.

For the future health of their sector, European development and humanitarian CSOs should work on building, unifying and collaborating as a sector so its strength and influence is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Read the full report on Options for maximising UK-European civil society collaboration in a Brexit context

About the author

Claire Godfrey

Claire Godfrey is interim director of policy, advocacy and research at Bond and has over 20 years' experience working on global poverty and social justice issues.