It is no secret that democracies around the world have been faced with a series of interrelated challenges in re- cent years and European democracies are no different. Amidst the immense socio-economic and political fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the
EU commitment to and support of democracy is more important than ever.
In 2019, the European Commission set out plans for a new push for European democracy which included a European Democracy Action Plan. This paper underlines how the Action Plan can provide a comprehensive frame-
work and vision to guide the EU and its Member States to strengthen and protect democracy in Europe. The
Action Plan needs to be comprehensive in its scope in order to address both the challenges and opportunities
for democracy, beyond a limited set of emerging threats. In other words, the EU must be ambitious.
The paper brings together contributions and recommendations from a wide range of 48 civil society and professional organisations to provide input into the Action Plan:
Civic space & active citizenship
Citizens, and the CSOs that represent them, need to be center stage of any EU action to reinvigorate democracy, including the European Democracy Action Plan. This includes creating an enabling environment for citizens to take up a proactive role in shaping inclusive decision-making, amongst others by conducting civic space impact assessments for all EU legislative proposals and developing a comprehensive policy framework on civic space. To this end, the Fundamental Rights Agency’s mandate needs to be reviewed and expanded, and the rule of law mechanism needs to be broadened in scope. The Commission also needs to propose a directive against Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) that covers media workers and civil society actors against whom abusive lawsuits are pursued. Finally, European actors must reinvigorate decision-making with new bottom-up participatory methods and reinforce existing channels of participation. To this end, an inter-institutional agreement on civil dialogue is needed, as is a reform of online consultations.
There is an urgent need to make elections more inclusive, representative and transparent in Europe. This includes endorsing the Spitzenkandidaten principle, ensuring the equality of suffrage rights, the right to vote and inclusiveness of persons with disabilities, improving the overall accessibility of elections, and re- forming political party and campaign finance. In line with the EU’s external election observation activities, the EU should establish and promote enabling mechanisms for citizen election observation of European and Member States’ elections in line with international principles and regional commitments. As for the integrity of the democratic debate and political campaigning online, the main structural reform needed is universal transparency of all online advertising, from targeting criteria to the amount spent per campaign. Measures to limit micro-targeting of political ads, preventing it from happening without a valid legal basis, are also crucial. The European Cooperation Network on Elections has an important role to play in coordinating between Member States on all of these issues.
Disinformation and online public sphere
The European Democracy Action Plan will need to set the frame- work for a rights-based Digital Services Act package, to address the power and information asymmetry from digital gatekeepers like Google and Facebook who have a major impact on democracy. The need for enhanced transparency is a basic precondition for any accountability. The recommendations include a variety of ideas for how to make platforms more accountable to government and citizens. In addition, the European Commission needs to set up a holistic decentralised cooperation framework on disinformation, that provides flexible, decentralised funding to CSOs and others working to tackle disinformation. Enhanced internal and international coordination on disinformation, with a special focus on moments of increased risk like elections is also vital.
Media pluralism and safety of journalists and media workers
It is unacceptable that journalists face threats, harassment and even violence simply because they exercise their essential democratic function. Measures to safeguard journalists in Europe are sorely needed, in particular an internal institutional alert mechanism and the full implementation of the Council of Europe recommendation on journalist protection. In addition to specific funding for journalism and public interest media, there is a clear need to address the decoupling of advertising revenue from news content production - something that is ripping apart the old business models of media actors. The European Democracy Action Plan can pave the way towards a new news market based on independent journalism and pluralistic media, specifically by calling for systematic analysis and scrutiny of information market mechanisms.
To meet these ambitious demands, the European Democracy Action Plan will need to include all the tools at its disposal to implement the plan, including using existing legal frameworks, legislative proposals, commitments to internal reorganisation and inter-institutional coordination, well-funded programmes, and coordination between Member States. The breadth of experiences and successes it has amassed in support of democracy externally provides an excellent starting point for taking more ambitious strides internally.1 In this light, it will be essential that the European Commission connects its internal and external affairs.
Civil society stands ready and united to serve as a resource and a partner to the European Commission in the development and implementation of the European Democracy Action Plan. This paper exemplifies the collective strength and vibrancy of European civil society. All 48 organisations have invested time and effort to collectively push for a more ambitious mission for a European Democracy Action Plan.