On 6 July, the European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova organised a second meeting with CSOs to discuss challenges and concerns regarding the upcoming Defence of Democracy pack, particularly the directive on covert foreign interference, that European civil society worries will be weaponised by governments to put further restrictions on civil society space.
Vice President Jourova shared information about the timeline for the adoption of the package, which is currently undergoing an impact assessment, further consultations and data collection over the summer. In September, the Commission will take stock of the progress and decide “not if, but when” the pack will be proposed for adoption by the Parliament and the Council.
She also gave insights about the scope of the directive and the safeguards the Commission wants to propose in order to avoid or mitigate unintended, negative consequences on civic space.
The proposal would aim to bring transparency of funding by any third country government of services contracted through any kind of legal entity to represent the respective country’s interest and influence decision-making in Europe. Humanitarian work, as well as operating grants from foreign governments for general support of an organisation, with no interest representation service to be provided on behalf of that government, would not fall under the scope of the directive.
A full harmonisation clause would ensure that member states cannot go below or beyond what the directive proposes. National registers of interest representation services by third countries will be created to ensure common standards and benchmarks.
Finally, specific safeguards would ensure that governments cannot use this opportunity to further shrink civic space in Europe. These include prohibiting stigmatisation and labelling of “foreign funding” entities, limiting administrative burden, introducing a non-publicity clause in case of serious risk for vulnerable groups, proportionate, administrative-only sanctions in case of non-compliance and oversight by an independent supervisory authority.
The European Civic Forum was present at the meeting and once again shared concerns, along with other CSOs and particularly Civil Society Europe, regarding potential negative consequences on civic space. We cited the unintended consequences of previous EU legislation in the area of money laundering and antiterrorism, or the migrant smuggling directive which did not contain enough safeguards to prevent governments from criminalising humanitarian care and assistance, search and rescue operations and other similar acts.
We are looking forward to the next steps in the consultations in September. We expect more concrete proposals on the table and a shared text, in order to be able to provide informed feedback.