From Foreign Threats to Local Fears: Unpacking the EU’s Democracy Package

In a recent public hearing, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) examined the European Commission’s Defence of Democracy Package aimed at increasing the transparency of interest representation, reinforcing the resilience of elections and improving civil and civic participation. Representatives of civil society supported the overall spirit of the proposal but raised concerns about the narrow focus of the Directive on foreign influence and its potential repercussions on civic space in Europe.

The package’s centrepiece, a Directive on transparency of interest representation activities carried out on behalf of third countries, garnered mixed reactions. While applauding the aim of increasing transparency, participants of the hearing warned against unintended consequences.

Concerns were voiced about the too vague definition of a number of key legal concepts put forward in the proposed Directive around the issue of “foreign interference”. Participants also warned about the risk of misuse of the Directive by some governments and the impact of such a Directive on the credibility of the EU’s global efforts against foreign agent laws.

A call for a comprehensive approach to transparency

Panellists emphasised the need for caution in approaching the question of transparency, highlighting that while foreign interference was a significant concern that required a unified EU response, a narrow focus on external threats overlooked destabilisation of EU democracies from within, creating a blind spot. Several participants advocated for the EU to refocus its proposal towards the creation of a global transparency register concerning all activities, whatever the source of their funding.

Recommendations lack legal teeth

The two non-binding recommendations included in the package, on inclusive and resilient elections and on civil and civic participation, were generally welcomed by the participants in the hearing. However, they called for stronger legal frameworks at EU and Member State levels to ensure structured participation of all actors of society, including marginalised groups. The late timing of the recommendations, potentially hindering their impact on the upcoming European elections, was also noted.

Looking ahead

The hearing provided a crucial platform for stakeholders to voice their concerns and suggestions on the Defence of Democracy Package and its impact on European democracy. The discussions will inform the EESC’s forthcoming opinion on the package which will be adopted at the 24-25 April plenary session.