What Europe will look like in the next five years will depend on how EU civil society organizes after the Open Society Foundation’s departure.
Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris and founder of The Good Lobby, a nonprofit committed to equalize access to power.
The Open Society Foundation’s (OSF) decision to end a large part of its European operations caught many by surprise — including many of its founder George Soros’ foes. Historically, no other foundation has done more to build and support European civil society. After initially encouraging dissent behind the Iron Curtain — including Soros’ native country of Hungary — today, it’s difficult to find a well-established nonprofit (or public interest initiative) operating across the European Union that hasn’t benefited from the foundation’s support at some point.
And it is this entrenched, ubiquitous nature of OSF support for EU civil society, combined with its massive funding capacity and professional support, which makes its sudden decision to leave deeply consequential.
Because of the OSF’s massive structural presence within EU civil society — which is equivalent to approximately an eighth of the €1.5 billion distributed every year — its withdrawal threatens the survival of numerous nonprofits, many of which act as democratic watchdogs.
And due to the absence of alternative funding, among those most at risk are NGOs working on issues related to technology — from trying to counter online harms while advocating for AI regulation to monitoring unchecked state surveillance and the use of spyware — as well as those focused on highly contested issues like gender, minority and migrant rights, as well as racial justice.
Seen from this perspective, the Soros retreat couldn’t come at a worse time for the European project, as it is being challenged by nationalist and populist parties dismissive of the bloc’s underlying “open” values, and that will soon find themselves free of the scrutiny that OSF-backed organizations strive to exercise.
But there is more, as the gap left by OSF funding may soon be filled by conservative and religious-right donors. Such donors have already been moving in, notably in countries such as Poland and Italy, to support anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, and their giving has been normalized. Ahead of the next EU elections in June 2024, they will now have an easier time, thanks to the Soros withdrawal.
Interestingly, one of the justifications given for why the OSF was scaling back is that the EU’s institutions “are already allocating significant resources to human rights, freedom and pluralism.” Yet, it appears naïve to believe that large amounts of public money for NGOs that populists don’t like will continue to flow unchallenged, especially as the new political climate could be very different after June 2024.
Liberal-minded EU civil society may well need private cash to survive, and the bad news is that no other philanthropic organization has the resources — or guts — to embolden European NGOs to the same degree, and on a Pan-EU scale, as the OSF did.
This quasi-monopolistic position also highlights a deeply inconvenient truth: After decades of almost unconditional support, EU nonprofits have allowed for the growth of an unhealthy dependency, making Soros’ departure even more worrying.
Of course, a donor always remains free to redirect funding toward other regions of the world, yet one must wonder whether such freedom releases them of ongoing responsibility.
Ultimately, this is a bitter pill to swallow for European civil society — especially because it comes on the heels of a three-year-long protracted restructuring of the OSF, which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and ended with a long-awaited generational succession.
The foundation’s new funding direction carries the signature of incoming chair Alexander Soros — George’s 37-year-old son — as well as that of OSF President Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, whose interest in the EU project matches that of a lukewarm British Remainer. As is typical of philanthropy, one must wonder if the OSF’s U-turn has more to do with the personal preferences of its new leadership than with a rigorous evidence-based assessment of the real dangers facing EU liberal democracy.
For hundreds of organizations and individuals committed to social change, this is all very discomforting. And what is worse, this conduct also harms the reputation of philanthropy at a time when its contribution is needed the most. Indeed, the OSF’s announced retreat doesn’t only mark a counterintuitive, bittersweet conclusion to its historical role in building the Pan-European civil infrastructure, it is also a major test of European philanthropy’s credibility and resilience as the bloc enters an unprecedented electoral season, with votes scheduled in almost a quarter of its members countries and the EU elections looming.
The most urgent question now is: Will others step in to fill the gap?