The EESC opinion on the "Reinforcing democracy and integrity of elections package", adopted at the February plenary session, comes in at a very timely moment, with populist voices and anti-democratic rhetoric gaining ground in Europe. Manipulative information, interference and fake news disseminated by "bots" and "trolls" could generate a "casus belli" pretext, as we have witnessed all too recently. The EESC welcomes the aims of the European election package and makes recommendations to further secure transparent, accessible and honest political activities and an active role of civil society.
The Reinforcing democracy and integrity of elections package was issued by the European Commission in November 2021. The EESC was consulted on two items of this package: the proposal regarding ensuring greater transparency in political advertising; and the revision of the current rules on statute and funding of European political parties and European foundations.
The rapporteur of the opinion, EESC member Andris Gobiņš emphasises that:
A stronger focus is needed on countering disinformation, as the latter has an increasing impact on elections and transparency. Fact checking and media literacy cannot address either the barrage of divisive and misleading content that citizens are exposed to, or what attracts some citizens to such content in the first place.
Clearer frame regarding statute and funding of European political parties and political foundations
The EESC supports all aspects linked to political campaigning in the election package and additionally made specific proposals, clarifying the issue of donations. For example, it proposes a universal ceiling for donations by private individuals of EUR 18,000 per year. It also suggests lowering the cap for anonymous donations to EUR 1,000.
Regarding donations from third countries which benefit EU political parties or political foundations, the Committee believes that these contributions may pose an excessive risk to the independence of recipients and consequently to the democratic system. To this end, the EESC suggested that some provisions of the legislative proposal should be amended to address this risk.
In addition, on the matter of statute and funding of European political parties and European political foundations, the EESC also made suggestions to strengthen standards concerning gender balance, tackle discrimination, promote human rights, and limit the involvement of EU parties in national referendum campaigns.
Fair and transparent elections are an integral part of a vibrant society
Firmly supporting people's rights to transparent information about political advertising, the EESC indicates a number of recommendations to bring a solid level of transparency to political campaigning and limit the opaque targeting techniques. Special attention must be paid to the definition of political advertising, including impacts via the so-called "bots" and "trolls" and manipulative information.
In addition, the EESC strongly recommended prohibiting targeted political advertising based on the pervasive tracking and processing of information relating to an individual's on- or offline behaviour and highlights that special regulations should be considered in countries where the independence of public media is not fully guaranteed.
Moreover, further efforts should be made to remove remaining barriers and ensure inclusive participation in elections. Citizens must be able to clearly understand which national parties have or plan to have links to European parties.
The role of civil society in the electoral process is crucial, given that citizens must have a meaningful say in shaping EU's future beyond and between elections. The EESC stresses the importance of an annual event that will bring together high level representatives of EU institutions and civil society organisations, in order to share best practices and draw up an annual plan to strengthen democracy, participation and civic dialogue.