Most of us would expect that “non-governmental” or “civil society” organizations are sustained by donations or contributions they receive from those whom they claim to represent. That may be true for most of them – but not for all. Unbeknownst to the wider public, and in grotesque contradiction to good democratic practice, the European Commission has for years funded, and continues funding, a small number of lobby groups promoting a controversial and radical social agenda. Most notably, the beneficiaries of this funding include groups such as ILGA Europe and the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) – the former is the umbrella organization for gay and lesbian pressure groups throughout Europe, the latter a group that, whilst pretending to speak on behalf of women, in actual fact follows a radical feminist ideology that does not have much support in the wider population and certainly is not representative for the needs and mindsets of all women. The monies they receive from the European Commission account for more than two thirds of those organisations’ total expenditures, which means that without this generous support they simply would not exist.
In 2007 – 2013 most of this funding was paid out under the Commission’s PROGRESS programme, a funding scheme that allowed the Commission to fund up to 80% of the operative budget of certain non-governmental organizations it found worthy of such support. This is done through so-called “operating grants” that are not linked to any specific project or activity of the recipient, but can be freely used to pay salaries, office and telephone costs, travel expenses, and whatever else comes to mind. With the PROGRESS programme having expired in 2013, the controversial funding is now continued under a new programme called “Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme 2014-2020“. The legal basis for the current programme is laid in Regulation (EU) No 1381/2013. On the basis of that Regulation, the Commission has published a “Call for Proposals” in which it announces its intention to “support the activities and operating costs of EU-level networks” whose statutory aims fall under or contribute to the objectives of the programme. These objectives include such topics as “fight against homophobia”, “gender equality, or “non-discrimination”. Under point 6.3 the Call for Proposal specifies that “the grant cannot constitute more than 80% of the total eligible Forecast Operating Budget of the organisation. The applicant should ensure that the outstanding balance is covered from sources other than the EU budget (own resources of the applicant, contributions by donors, income generated by the activities)”.
This means, in other words, that there is a number of highly privileged “non-governmental organisations” that get up to 80% of their budget financed directly by the Commission, i.e. with taxpayer’s money.
This might be unproblematic if the recipient organizations were genuine charities that give bread to the poor and needy or provide medical counseling to those who cannot afford it. But as it turns out, those recipients in reality are “advocacy groups” that operate in a political environment and pursue rather controversial agendas. This is particularly true for EWL, which closely collaborates with partners such as Planned Parenthood to advocate abortion, and ILGA-Europe, with its aggressive lobbying for the controversial “gay rights agenda“.
The Commission’s support for ILGA’s and EWL is not only financial, but also political. For example, in 2011 the Commission hosted ILGA Europe’s photo exhibition “Different families, same love” on the premises of the Berlaymont building in Brussels, thus signalling its full endorsement for an agenda that not only is highly questionable from an ethical point of view, but also falls clearly outside the EU’s competences.
Even if one were to consider lobbying for those agendas a legitimate activity, it remains that it is part of a political competition. By giving operating grants and political favours to EWL and ILGA Europe, the European Commission distorts the political competition and discriminates against all those citizens who (very legitimately and with good reasons) do not agree to the radical agendas of these groups, but who through their taxes are nevertheless forced to contribute to their advocacy work.
If an organisation gets up to 80% of its operating cost from public budgets, it obviously can be neither “civil society” nor “non-governmental”: it depends on, and is kept alive by, the public institution that sponsors it. And it remains doubtful whether such an organisation can be believed to truly represent the constituency on whose behalf it claims to be speaking.
A closer look at ILGA Europe’s financial statements (taken from the group’s official Annual Report) shows the extent to which it depends on taxpayers’ money. The total income of the group in 2012 was € 2.028.503,– (100%), of which the European Commission grant under the PROGRESS programme was € 948.022,–. The abbreviation EIDHR refers to the “European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights“, another (separate) funding programme run by the European Commission. The 52.004,– Euro received from EIDHR must in fact be added to the Commission grant, which raises the Commission’s contribution to ILGA’s budget to € 1.000.026,–, i.e. 49,3%. Further public funding was contributed by the Dutch (€ 430.289,–) and the US (€ 10.522,–) governments. This means that € 1.440.837,– Euro, i.e. 71% of the group’s total income, comes from public funds.
Where does the rest of the money come from? The financial statement mentions three main donors. The most important, contributing 229.732,– Euro, is the Sigrid Rausing Trust, a “philantropic” foundation run by a rich heiress from Sweden, followed by George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI) which donated 173.013,– Euro. A third donor who gave 74.173,– Euro preferred to remain anonymous. Together, these three donors account for 476.918,– Euro, i.e. 23.5% of ILGA Europe’s 2012 income.
A small rest of 6.5% of the group’s money comes from other sources. However, these sources do not seem to include any membership fees received from the constituency the group claims to represent, i.e. homosexual and transgender persons (or their advocacy groups at national level).
Even if ILGA Europe received no government funding at all, and instead relied on the monies received from private donors, the apparent dependence on solely three wealthy individuals would undermine the groups’ claim to represent “civil society”. This looks more like a Potemkin façade, not like a grassroots organization.
But the fact that more than 70% of the groups money comes from the pockets of taxpayers who were never asked whether they agreed with ILGA Europe’s controversial agenda raises serious systemic questions regarding fundamental principles of democratic governance. There are many millions of European citizens who remain strongly opposed to the policies ILGA Europe is advocating. But these citizens do not receive any government money to help them in setting up a lobby group in Brussels to make their voices heard; instead they unknowingly and unwillingly contribute through their taxes to the promotion of policies they do not want. The amount of funding ILGA Europe receives from the Commission is quite substantial, it suffices to pay the salaries for (at least) ten full-time employed lobbyists. This alone would make ILGA Europe one of the best-staffed lobbying operations in the EU’s capital.
Information on the funding of EWL is less readily available. However, a notice on the organization’s website says this:
Thus, the Commission funding is even higher than the 80% that the PROGRESS scheme establishes as the maximum EU contribution to the budget of a beneficiary! This support is, from a social policy perspective, particularly unbalanced, given that EWL is not an organization that can claim to represent women in general, but instead promotes extremist feminist positions that are not widely shared. There is no evidence for the Commission ever having offered similar support to women’s organisation that represent the interest of married family mothers predominantly dealing with the education of their own children, or to groups that oppose the killing of unborn children. By providing such lavish support to a highly ideologized group like EWL, the Commission severely distorts political competition.
By funding organizations such as EWL or ILGA Europe, the Commission is creating a muppet “civil society” for itself to dialogue with. One might describe this as “political ventriloquism”: when speaking and listening to this type of advocacy groups, the Commission is actually speaking and listening to itself. The views and opinions of genuine civil society groups (such as, for example, embodied by the European Citizens’ Initiative ONE OF US), are brazenly neglected. This artifice may in the short term create the illusion of a public administration that is “listening to the concerns of citizens” – but in the longer term it will badly undermine the Commission’s own credibility.
It is therefore about time for the EU to step out of its self-spun cocoon and get acquainted with the real concerns of real people. AGENDA EUROPE calls on the Commission to stop fabricating a fake “civil society”, and instead listen to real concerns voiced by real citizens.