For our latest edition of Democracy Drinks, Liberties used the occasion to discuss a topic that has been keeping us busy lately: the European Union’s proposed ‘Foreign Agent’ law.
The EU recently revealed that the centrepiece of the ‘Defence of Democracy’ package would be a directive introducing restrictions to combat foreign interference. Owing to the European Commission’s secrecy civil society was left in the dark about the exact contents of the package, however, initially these new rules were understood to be directed only at NGOs receiving funding from third country donors.
During the Democracy Drinks event, Liberties’ executive director Balázs Dénes was able to shed some light on this, sharing some exclusive insights following his tour in Brussels.
The directive goes after state funds
The controversial package would have three key pillars and a broader scope than originally thought. The first pillar is the Foreign Interference Directive. The directive is aimed at regulating recipients of state-affiliated funds from third countries, and brings within its scope not only NGOs but also companies, academia, researchers, journalists, and individuals. This means that funding from private philanthropic actors will not be captured by the legislation. The second and third pillars will provide recommendations to member states on elections and strengthening civil society participatio, respectively.
Like many of our peers, Liberties spoke out against the proposed rules, and Balázs unpacked our concerns during the evening’s discussion. The conversation began by acknowledging the worrying context in which this package is being announced, one in which the trend of shrinking civic space in the EU has emerged as a legitimate and persistent concern of NGOs during the past decade.
While concerns for the dangers posed by foreign interference are well-founded, the new rules reflect an unsupported assumption that NGOs are potential trojan horses for governments with malign intentions to destabilise EU democracies. In light of the Commission’s acknowledgment that NGOs are integral assets to the EU’s efforts to protect European democracies, many of the evening's attendees from peer organisations voiced their confusion, wondering why the EU would propose such inflammatory measures when it recently heavily criticised a similar bill that was abandoned in Georgia following widespread protests.
EP elections could be the next big target - for foreign interference
One possible driving force behind the Defence of Democracy package is the growing influence of state actors through Big Tech platforms, particularly with regard to election outcomes.
According to Balázs, the EU may be trying to proactively address this issue before the European Parliament elections in 2024. Members of the audience also pointed out that the urgency of the announcement might in part be a political stunt, a misguided attempt at damage control following the ‘Qatargate’ scandal. This would partially explain why the European Commission admitted that no impact assessment was planned.
As the evening drew to a close, the discussion turned to alternative solutions available to the EU to tackle foreign interference. Balázs made the point that, if the EU is concerned about election interference, it should tighten the rules governing political advertising. Legislation which would improve the transparency and targeting of political advertising is under debate in the EU, however, the Commission and some member states want to include an exception that would allow political actors to send tailored ads to users based on their sensitive data.
The package might do more harm than good
While the EU appears willing to engage with NGOs, there are fears that by widening the category of recipients impacted by the legislation, the Commission is opening Pandora’s box. Civil society is in agreement that the Defence of Democracy package will do more harm than good, however, as one guest pointed out, a unified platform of organisations rallying around a viable alternative is missing. With the package due to be unveiled in its entirety later this summer, it remains to be seen whether the EU will heed the concern’s of civil society.
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