Collaboration between European policymakers and philanthropy – yes, but how?
Challenges facing Europe today are tremendous and require an orchestrated response from both the private and public sectors. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated how interconnected our continent has become, and that we need to mobilise immense resources to tackle the crisis and ensure a transition towards more just and more resilient European societies.
On 1 July, the European Policy Centre (EPC), together with DAFNE and EFC organised an online policy debate on how European policymakers and philanthropy can strengthen collaboration to support this transition.
We invited Jean-Eric Paquet from the European Commission DG for Research and Innovation, Anna Julia Donath, Hungarian MEP from the Renew Europe group, Angel Font, Corporate Director of Scientific Research, “la Caixa” Foundation in Spain and new Chair of the European Foundation Centre, Dr Oonagh B. Breen who is Professor of Law at the University College Dublin and EPC’s Director for Studies Janis Emmanouilidis. The debate was moderated by Jacki Davis, Meade Davis Communications.
The role of philanthropy in crises
European philanthropy’s response to the COVID-19 crisis was tremendous and timely. Though not generally set up for emergency situations, foundations across Europe – from large organisations to community foundations – were able to quickly step up and provide support at both national and European levels, Angel Font emphasised. Besides pooling funds for emergency support, philanthropic organisations committed to more flexibility and solidarity with the beneficiaries and their needs by signing the European Philanthropy Statement.
Jean-Eric Paquet stressed the successful collaboration between the European Commission and philanthropy in the context of the global pledging events, which together mobilised 16 billion euros, as well as resources for vaccine development and testing. “Philanthropy is well placed to act as intermediaries in designing policies with citizens,” he said during the event. And this potential needs to be further explored. In a similar vein, Janis Emmanouilidis emphasised philanthropy’s role in engaging citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe.
MEP Anna Julia Donath placed philanthropy within the context of wider civil society, an important pillar of European democracy and the realisation of Europe’s core values. It is crucial to create an enabling operating environment for civil society by reducing administrative barriers, enabling active citizenship, making funding rules simple and flexible and refraining from restricting the civil space for political gains.
Challenges philanthropy is facing, and how to overcome them
The philanthropic sector is, however, not free from challenges. There is lack of understanding of philanthropy and its role within the wider public. By being more transparent, the sector could widen the shrinking civic space and protect civil society from the rise of populism, Anna Julia Donath emphasised.
Dr Oonagh Breen outlined the legal hurdles public benefit organisations face today because philanthropy and the wider civil society are not recognised in the European treaties and ensuing legal framework. Thus, cross-border philanthropy remains a challenge, since the definitions of public benefit foundations largely differ in Europe, which leads to registration problems, hurdles to shift headquarters within the EU or perform cross-border mergers, and this costs time and money.
Legislative solutions are hard to find since unanimity is required in the Council, which for political reasons is difficult to achieve. She suggested an approach, based on enhanced cooperation, for instance, from a group of willing Member States, which could have more prospects for success.
Moreover, the Europe-wide recognition of philanthropy for tax purposes could be worth considering, as well as a European vehicle to facilitate the creation of more public benefit organisations with a European cross-border mission and vision. Anna Julia Donath supported the idea of a European instrument, which is currently being worked on by the European Parliament and stressed the need to create political pressure. Tackling this issue would ensure more collaboration and solidarity across borders.
Philanthropy can play a crucial role as a bridge builder between the state and the market, often supporting unpopular causes and investing in areas that do not generate profit but serve the needs of local communities. To be sure, foundations need to stick to their charitable purposes, and their political engagement largely depends on the context they are active in.
A better recognition of philanthropy could serve as a cornerstone for civil dialogue in Europe. MEP Anna Julia Donath suggested to bring the issue of shrinking space close to the public to make the rule of law heard and understood. Dr Oonagh Breen called on the Commission to ensure that Member State processes around mutual recognition and cross-border philanthropy taxation are as simple as possible. This would potentially contribute to the creation of more public benefit foundations in Europe.