European Economic and Social Committee warns Defence of Democracy Package might not deliver on its promises

The European Commission’s Defence of Democracy package was the subject of a debate at the April EESC plenary session. Members of the EESC have expressed reservations about its timing and approach, particularly for addressing foreign influence. The EESC argued that the package is not only ineffective, but could harm civic spaces in Europe.

Despite its stated intentions to improve transparency and democratic accountability in Europe, the EESC sees the Defence of Democracy package as deeply flawed. It argues that the package has arrived far too late for any real impact on the upcoming the 2024 European elections, and has failed to address the Committee’s previous recommendations for strengthening European democracy.

In his remarks, EESC President Oliver Röpke underlined that 'when talking about "dangers" for our democracies, it is important to underline the strong response of the EU and the track record of the current European Commission in the defence of democracy, fundamental rights, and the rule of law. The EESC has also heard the concerns expressed by many civil society actors on what they see as risks of the package. We need to find a common approach to combine the defence of democracy and all necessary safeguards to preserve civic space’.

While the EESC supports the transparency objectives of the proposed directive on lobbying carried out on behalf of third countries, it strongly opposes the proposed methods, cautioning against unintended consequences on civic spaces. Christian Moos, EESC rapporteur for the opinion on the Defence of Democracy package, said that ‘we consider this directive to be dangerous. It resembles a “foreign agents” law. It is potentially stigmatising NGOs. Clearly, the current proposal should be withdrawn. It risks adding to the problem of shrinking civic spaces in Europe, and that is something the Commission couldn’t possibly want’.

Co-rapporteur José Antonio Moreno Díaz expressed scepticism regarding the package’s ability to address the root causes of democratic erosion within EU borders: ‘Certain national and regional governments, as well as political forces and parties, question the values and principles of the EU’. By narrowly focusing on external threats, the package overlooks the insidious efforts to destabilise EU democracies from within, thereby creating a dangerous blind spot.

Ken Godfrey, the Executive Director of the European Partnership for Democracy, warned against potential pitfalls of the proposed directive: ‘Malign foreign interference is a problem in many democracies, but the proposed directive will not be able to address the stated policy objectives, and will create further problems for the EU by emboldening those who want to use foreign-agent-type laws to undermine democracy’.

The EESC welcomes the package’s recommendations on inclusive elections and civic participation, but urges stronger legal frameworks for societal inclusion. The opinion calls for increased involvement of civil society in EU policy-making, and for elections to be made universally accessible. Protecting democracy means safeguarding fundamental values and integrating marginalised groups through political education and awareness raising, and by harmonising procedures across Member States.

Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, Ana Gallego Torres, acknowledged the criticism on the package and its potential to stigmatise certain actors, but feels confident that there are measures in place to limit this possibility, stating that ‘there seems to be broad agreement on the goals of this proposal, the existence of challenges, and the need to address them. We are committed to working together with civil society, as “a whole society approach” is necessary to implement this package effectively, in line with those goals’.