Democracy & Justice

Politico Op-ed: Defending Democracy Requires a Free Civil Society

In copying the narrative spun by authoritarians, the Commission’s transparency plan risks undermining democracy — and it threatens the survival of NGOs.

by Eleanor Brooks & Israel Butler

Eleanor Brooks is a communications specialist at Liberties, a Berlin-based human rights organization. Israel Butler is the head of messaging and framing at Liberties.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are vital to the European Union’s efforts in defending democracy.

As representatives of issues of public interest, the EU acknowledges that civil society plays an essential role in helping safeguard the values vaunted by the European Union, and that they facilitate citizen participation in public life.

However, in her 2022 State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new initiative, called “The Defence of Democracy package” — its centerpiece being rules that would subject CSOs to reporting and registration restrictions if they receive funding from third-country donors.

But in copying the narrative spun by authoritarians, the Commission’s plan risks undermining trust in such organizations — and it threatens their survival.

The Commission’s proposed rules adopt and legitimize the smear that CSOs are potential trojan horses for foreign governments. As witnessed in Hungary and in Russia, authoritarian leaders weaponize transparency restrictions to break public trust in the work of CSOs, making it harder for them to fulfil their missions.

But, crucially, attempts to restrict the work of CSOs isn’t confined to these extreme examples — we’ve seen such attempts by politicians with close ties to corporate interests in Germany too, as they’ve tried to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups. And now, the Commission risks handing leaders who want to silence dissent, or prevent citizens from organizing, a weapon that has been legitimized by the EU to hobble campaigners promoting human rights, transparency, social justice, equality and environmental protection.

These proposed registration and reporting requirements will also deprive CSOs of much needed funding.

While larger foundations are less likely to be deterred from making donations — especially as CSOs already tend to publish their major sources of funding — it is smaller scale donors who are likely to be put off, fearing the consequences they may face if their declarations are made public. This risk is particularly acute in countries like Hungary, Slovenia, Sweden, Italy and Poland, where populists have launched smear campaigns against NGOs, as donors may fear reprisals from their governments, or loss of business.

The Commission’s package also casts its net far too wide. The concept of “lobbying activities” it refers to is vague and could include anything from events and meetings to conferences, held with the objective of directly, or indirectly, influencing policy, legislation or public decision-making and opinion.

This is significantly broader than the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which the EU institutions often defer to in these matters. By comparison, the latter only considers a narrower category of lobbying activities should be subject to transparency restrictions, namely those involving communication with a public official for the objective of influencing public decision-making.

Meanwhile, the United States Foreign Agents Registration Act offers the Commission another clear example of how this kind of proposal can end up harming rather than helping democracy, as it’s been burdening and delegitimizing campaigners working on environmental protection, good governance and religious freedom.

Ultimately, these proposed new obligations will make it harder for CSOs to carry out their work, and it threatens their ability to function. If the Commission is keen to bolster our democracies in the face of foreign interference, it should be protecting these organizations that bring democracy to life by giving citizens reliable information and offering them channels through which to talk to their representatives.

Yet, instead, as reported in Liberties’ Rule of Law Report 2023, CSOs are facing an increasingly hostile environment. And many of the hardest hit organizations, like those working on gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and access to abortion, are struggling to hold the line against regressive agendas pushed by their governments, which are aided by the support of American evangelical and/or Russian backers.

Does the Commission honestly think that these governments are going to implement new transparency restrictions in a way that supports CSOs promoting human rights, rule of law and democracy?

By the Commission’s own acknowledgment, “unjustified restrictions to the operating space of civil society organizations and human rights defenders can present a threat to the rule of law.” And it has also spoken out against similar measures in the past — most recently calling out a proposed legislation in Georgia for being “incompatible” with EU values, as well as bringing and winning a case against Hungary for a similar law at the Court of Justice of the EU.

Therefore, a nuanced response is now needed to address the legitimate worries held by the Commission and member countries with respect to foreign interference — and a proper impact assessment, examining the risks posed to freedom of association by these rules would be a good place to start.

However, despite the concerns voiced by civil society, and the negative feedback similar measures have already received, the Commission has stated that no such assessment has been done because they were “in a hurry”

Meanwhile, the Commission should also consider using more targeted tools it already at its disposal, which don’t impede on CSOs undertaking work that’s essential to nurturing democracy. These include strengthening the monitoring of the EU’s transparency registry, improving the enforcement of existing rules, increasing cybersecurity around elections, and tackling the threats posed by targeted political advertising.

So, rather than provide authoritarian leaders with extra ammo, the Commission should instead focus on positive initiatives that effectively counteract the threat of foreign interference — not ones that squeeze civic space.

This piece was originally published in

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