With the EU’s Defence of Democracy Package on pause, it provides a moment to think critically about its effectiveness. Whilst the Commission acknowledges the importance of safeguarding democratic values, its focus on external threats undermines efforts to address internal challenges within member states. Civil society organisations have expressed concerns over proposed directives, fearing potential limitations on their activities. To strengthen democratic resilience from within, the Commission needs to engage in structured dialogue with civil society.
According to the European Commission, defending democracy is high on its agenda. But its current approach to tackling the issue via its proposed Defence of Democracy package, which focuses heavily on threats coming from outside the EU, has significant shortcomings. By focusing on some symptoms of weakening democracies, such as covert foreign interference, the Commission is not paying enough attention to what is happening within member states, where civic freedoms have repeatedly come under threat. By doing so, it misses the opportunity to build democratic resilience from within.
If the Commission is fully committed to strengthening democracy, it must pay attention to internal factors that are crucial for strengthening democratic resilience at home. It should seek to address the root causes of people’s dissatisfaction and prioritise structured dialogue with civil society.
Concerns over proposed ‘tool’ to ‘defend’ democracy
In June 2023, the Commission indefinitely postponed its Defence of Democracy package following civil societies’ alarm over the proposed directive on “common transparency and accountability standards for interest representation services directed or paid for from outside the EU.”
Over 200 civil society organisations expressed their serious concerns in a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over fears that this directive could equate to a “Foreign Agents” law, similar to ones passed in the US, which would have negative consequences on civil society.
The approach the Commission took in its initial consultation was also worrying. The consultation was brief and did not include an impact assessment. This goes against the Commission’s own better regulation toolbox which emphasises the need for a thorough review of the policy options (including the possibility of not having any legislation); subsidiarity and proportionality when choosing a legal instrument, and that there should be an independent review by the Regulatory Scrutiny Board.
Instead of carrying out this process, the Commission opted for a directive- a legal instrument which allows Member states to decide on how it is implemented. This leaves the door open for some member states to manipulate this tool to further restrict civic freedoms.
The consultation reflected the existing gaps in the EU’s policy making processes. Throughout the process civil society has largely been left in the dark in terms of the scale of the issue with foreign interference, the policy options being considered and how this might translate in practice.
For these reasons, CSOs called for the directive to be scrapped and urgently requested a fundamental rights impact assessment.
As a result of this advocacy, the Commission will now conduct an impact assessment on the package and further consult stakeholders. Yet again, civil society is reiterating that such an impact assessment cannot be a mere add-on to the work already started by the Commission but should be comprehensive, evidence-based, transparent and unbiased.
However, it must go beyond this. If the Commission is committed to its goal of defending democracy, it should finally implement article 11.2 of the Treaty of the EU and ensure that structured dialogue is an anchor in this process.
This will ensure that policies being put forward are centred on fundamental rights principles, inclusive and deliver for all.
Paying attention to democracy at home
The limitations of this package stem from the EU’s approach to tackling democratic backsliding and ongoing threats to civic freedoms in member states.
Challenges to civic and democratic freedoms are well documented: research from the European Civic Forum, a network of almost 100 NGOs across Europe and the CIVICUS Monitor, a data platform which tracks and rates civic space, shows that civic freedoms and democracy are in decline in many EU member states.
For instance, in France public funds for several climate rights and feminist associations have been withdrawn. An increasing number of NGOs are facing dissolution for allegedly failing to comply with the Separatism law, which requires any association applying for public financing to sign a so-called “contract of commitment to Republican principles”. In Germany, police raided the homes of the Last Generation climate activist group and placed the group under surveillance while human rights defenders advocating for migrant rights and abortion rights, including in Poland, Greece, and Latvia are facing restrictions.
Not only is civil society facing threats at the national level, but it is also being smeared at the European level in light of the so-called Qatargate scandal. In one example, the Chair of the European Parliament budgetary control committee labelled CSOs as potential “enemies of our democracies,” and called for an “EU equivalent to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act” (FARA) to increase control and transparency. A recent statement by the European Parliament on the Commission’s proposal for an EU ethics body, noted that NGOs “have been used as vectors of foreign interference” and called for “closer examination of revolving doors’ incidents involving NGOs”.
It is concerning that the directive is being put forward in this climate. Failure to tackle internal threats to democracy and to strengthen democratic resilience is likely to be counterproductive and would weaken democracy instead of defending it. It could also have major geopolitical implications for the EU and its credibility to defend democracy globally.
A way forward: What must the EU do to defend democracy?
If the EU is serious about defending democracy, it should first ensure that democratic processes deliver policies that respond to people’s economic, social, and environmental needs. Accordingly, it should listen to and engage in an open, transparent and regular, structured dialogue with civil society, which is often at the frontline in defending people’s welfare and fighting against democratic setbacks.
The Commission should scrap the proposed directive in its Defence of Democracy package and reconsider its legislative options by carrying out a thorough fundamental rights impact assessment. This will ensure that any alternative proposals from the package do not hamper civil society and are in line with fundamental rights.
Instead, policy makers should ensure that the Defence of Democracy package includes measures to support, protect and empower civil society.
This will go a long way in defending democracy and strengthening democratic resilience both at home and abroad.
Arti Narsee is a Policy and Advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum, a pan-European network of nearly 100 associations and NGOs across 29 European countries: big federations of associations, national platforms uniting hundreds of thousands of NGOs, and smaller groups working at community level or engaging with the public on local issues. She has previously worked for the CIVICUS Monitor, documenting civic space trends in Europe and Central Asia.