EDITO: An EU foreign agents act would fatally undermine the Defence of Democracy package

04 May 2023 | Defence of Democracy, Op-Ed

The European Commission is set to publish its proposed Defence of Democracy package, following a short and limited Call for Evidence. In our response to the consultation, we made it clear that the package’s focus on ‘foreign interference’ risks damaging democracy, not defending it. This week, 230 civil society organisations wrote to European Commission President von der Leyen, calling for the proposed directive on foreign-funded organisations to be scrapped.

At ECF, we have been calling on the EU to strengthen and expand democracy since our founding. But in recent years, this has taken on a greater urgency. Across Europe, and indeed the world, we have seen democracy in retreat, shrinking civic space, growing attacks on fundamental rights and rising authoritarianism.

Why has democracy shown itself to be so vulnerable to these attacks? For democracies to be resilient, they need good inputs – like participatory mechanisms that allow people’s voices to be heard – and good outputs – policies that deliver on people’s needs. Unfortunately, democracy in Europe is lacking in both, and people are losing trust.

When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new ‘Defence of Democracy package’ in September, it was clear that there was both opportunity and risk: an opportunity to strengthen participation and restore trust; a risk of misdiagnosing the problem and prescribing the wrong solution.

When the Call for Evidence was published in March, we learned that these risks were becoming reality – ‘foreign interference’ was being mistakenly identified as the biggest threat to democracy. As our co-presidents wrote in February, this approach fails to recognise the problems closer to home.

While some necessary measures were included, these were overshadowed by the inclusion of a proposed directive to ‘introduce common transparency and accountability standards for interest representation services paid for or directed from outside the EU […] and to protect the EU democratic sphere from covert outside interference’.

The directive appears to mirror ‘foreign agent’ laws adopted in several countries – from the USA to Russia – which, regardless of their form or the intention behind them, have had a serious impact on CSOs.

Civil society is part of what keeps democracy alive. It is often on the frontlines – mobilising, responding to social needs and defending rights and democratic frameworks. It is a crucial arena for participation and for making sure that democracy doesn’t stop at the ballot box. Any threat to civil society is therefore a threat to democracy.

Earlier this week, 230 CSOs including ECF wrote to President von der Leyen, calling for the plans to be scrapped. If the European Commission is serious about defending democracy, it must protect and empower civil society. The first step must be to abandon the foreign interference directive.