The next European elections are now set for 6-9 June 2024. They will once again determine the makeup of the European Parliament for the next 5 years and may influence the composition of the next European Commission (in spite of the usual heavy involvement of member states).
With the elections looming, the institutions are eager to finalise work on the remaining major legislative files of this term.
However, the Defence of Democracy package, originally expected in June, has been delayed for an indefinite period. Following widespread alarm at its proposed foreign interference directive, the Commission has decided to listen to calls from civil society for a full impact assessment of the law.
Defending democracy requires a broader diagnosis of the problem.
From a ‘Defence of Democracy package’ we would expect a convincing and comprehensive analysis of the multiple causes of democratic backsliding and decline in the EU. One which, crucially, addresses the fact that a significant part of the population now questions whether democracy works for them, and what responsibility the institutions may have in this. But such a broad assessment has not been carried out, and instead, the package looks set to focus narrowly on ‘foreign interference’.
The package is also expected to recognise the role civil society plays in contributing to democratic resilience as well as making recommendations for promoting civic engagement at the member state level, and strengthening the quality of civic space and civil dialogue. This would definitely be a much-needed step forward.
However, the ‘foreign interference directive’, which the Commission seems determined to introduce, would be a big step back, emboldening authoritarian leaders to silence down civil society organisations and critical voices. The proposal intends to introduce a so-called ‘transparency and accountability standards’ for ‘interest representation services’ requiring them to declare funding coming from outside, and will create a register of the entities or individuals that receive such funding.
‘Foreign funding transparency’ laws have been introduced by numerous illiberal and authoritarian regimes, but also the US, and has in all cases had negative consequences, such as narrowing civic space and silencing critical voices. Nowhere foreign interference legislation has it been an efficient tool for the defence of democracy. Furthermore, by introducing such a law, the EU would undermine its credibility when speaking out against the use of similar legislation to suppress civil society in non-EU countries, including where the EU is a major funder, and to support civil society organisations working on human rights and democracy globally.
The Commission has sought to dispel civil society organisations concerns’, providing reassurances that the directive will be nothing like the US’s FARA, and that there will be strong safeguards for civil society. But these have failed to reassure civil society organisations and other stakeholders, as the limited consultations organised ahead of the Commission proposal gave no insights or details of the directive. Moreover, regardless of the “civic space” safeguards the Commission has in mind, a directive of this kind can and will be weaponised by anti-democratic actors if it goes ahead.
We are of course pleased that the European Commission has listened to the concerns of civil society and has now decided to delay the package to allow time for a full impact assessment of the directive.
An EU Civil Society Strategy
Democracy requires both good inputs – mechanisms which enable diverse voices to contribute to the democratic debate – and good outputs – policies which deliver on people’s needs along the values and objectives set by the European treaty. Today, democracy in Europe is facing pressure both on its inputs, as democratic backsliding unfolds across the EU, and its outputs, as many fear for their future and increasingly mistrust national institutions’ ability to deliver policies that will protect them.
To defend democracy, civil society organisations must be protected and empowered. Ahead of the EU elections, European CSOs, in close coordination with national-level organisations, will push for an EU Civil Society Strategy as a key pillar of future EU policy, including measures to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society, to protect CSOs, activists and rights defenders, and to ensure adequate and structured funding. We will also campaign for a Civil Dialogue Agreement, to ensure that civil dialogue is put on an equal footing to social dialogue across the policy-making cycle. This will be a vital input to help rebuild trust in democracy and the EU project.