Designed to empower citizens and build more resilient democracies across the EU, the European Democracy Action Plan is being hailed by many as a timely step in the right direction. However, there are concerns that the plan does not go far enough in its ambitions, an EESC hearing reveals
On 17 March, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) to gather contributions from other institutions and stakeholders for an opinion it is preparing as civil society input into the debate on this topic.
The rise of populism and attacks on the civic space and the free media are all a sign that democracy cannot be taken for granted. This has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This action plan is very much needed and we want to hear the views of European institutions, social partners and civil society on this important topic, rapporteur for the EESC opinion Carlos Manuel Trindade said in his opening remarks.
Different stakeholders will work together on the EDAP and implement it. By organising this hearing, we want to hear from all and make our opinion a truly joint European exercise, said the co-rapporteur Andris Gobinš.
As a response to a growing erosion of democracy across Europe, the EDAP was presented by the European Commission in December. It sets out several measures around the three main pillars: strengthening democracy through promoting free and fair elections and supporting civic engagement; securing the independence and freedom of the media; and countering disinformation.
Presenting the EDAP at the hearing, Julien Mousnier of the European Commission stressed that many of the threats that the EDAP addressed were quickly evolving, and underlined the importance of monitoring mechanisms to check whether the measures were having the desired effect. The plan would be gradually implemented by 2023, at which point the situation should be improved before the next EU elections.
Carla Grijó of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the commitment of the Portuguese EU presidency to support the plan and stressed that its implementation required joint efforts between the Member States and the EU institutions, with full respect of the division of competences under the Treaties.
However, other participants in the hearing, although welcoming the EDAP, said that the plan could have been more ambitious and could have addressed some vital issues that are indispensable for securing a functioning democracy, such as democracy at work and structured dialogue with civil society.
STRUCTURED INVOLVEMENT OF CIVIL SOCIETY – AN ANTIDOTE TO POPULISM AND DISINFORMATION
For Alexandrina Najmowicz of the European Civic Forum, an important piece missing from the EDAP is citizens' engagement in democratic processes.
We saw a great opportunity in this action plan to give room to the citizens – but where are they? she asked.
The right of citizens to participate in the life of the EU is laid down in the Treaties as is the obligation of the EU institutions to maintain an active dialogue with their representative associations.
Yet despite the huge progress made by civil society since the 1980s, to organise both nationally and transnationally, as well as across sectors, and to bring the voice of citizens into EU policies,
it is still a pity that we need to spend lots of time and energy to show to all institutions that we are not phantoms, that we exist and that we can be a valuable resource, she said.
Much hope is now being pinned on the Conference on the Future of Europe, which has finally given space to civil society.
Carlo Ruzza, professor of political sociology at the University of Trento, said a structured involvement of civil society at the EU level was necessary to deepen and improve the functioning of EU democracy.
EU institutions need civil society to contrast the 'populist turn' in EU politics. For example, civil society organisations can play a vital role in the fight against conspiracy theories since people spreading them often have access to only one type of social media and are emotionally connected to their community only, he said, adding that civil society organisations can change that through fact-based advocacy.
Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdansk, who is working on the Committee of the Regions' opinion on the EDAP, objected to the fact that the plan failed to mention the vital role of regional and local authorities.
This plan should not be just for the European elections, it should also work for democracy at all levels, she stressed.
She also mentioned the importance of education about democracy, which can not only help democracies to survive but also make them stronger. In her view, there should also be more support for NGOs involved in fact-checking and fighting against disinformation.
In the view of Spanish MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa, the plan could have been more complete. It failed to take into account the importance of education and training about the EU as the best antidote to external cyberattacks or propaganda against EU democracy.
It is precisely due to the lack of general knowledge about the origins of the EU, its values, or competencies that Euroscepticism and Europhobia thrive, Mr Ruiz Devesa said, adding that the EU had for a long time avoided taking action in this field.
OVERLOOKING THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL DIALOGUE
According to Julian Scola of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the EDAP proposes many useful actions, which are all broadly welcome, but it falls short of addressing some of the troubling issues more profoundly.
This plan does not add up to an adequate plan for safeguarding democracy in Europe, far from it, Mr Scola maintained, stressing that it did not recognise the crucial importance of social dialogue for the stability of any democracy.
Too many workers including in the public sector are still not able to join trade unions, bargain collectively or to have the right to strike. And the right to information and consultation is frequently flouted, Mr Scola warned.
PLAN LONG OVERDUE FOR SECURING JOURNALISTS' SAFETY
The Director of the European Federation of Journalists Renate Schroeder applauded the Commission's initiative to launch the plan, describing it as long overdue, especially given the worrying trends in media freedoms on the ground which have been taking a downturn for some time.
Today we are facing enormous challenges in journalism throughout Europe. It is like a cancer at the horizontal level, with more and more politicians, but also citizens, attacking journalists during demonstrations and protests. At the same time, conspiracy theories and disinformation are on the rise, Ms Schroeder said.
According to the figures she presented at the hearing, 2020 was a record year in terms of attacks levelled against journalists. The Media Freedom Rapid Response, a platform for tracking violations of press and media freedom in the EU and candidate countries, recorded 245 alerts with 873 attacks on journalists and media workers in 22 EU Member States. Nearly one in four incidents resulted in physical assaults.
Ms Schroeder said that the actions regarding the media contained in the plan, such as the recommendation on the safety of journalists, required strong support from the highest level within the Member States in order to succeed, and that governments needed to commit to putting media freedom and the protection of journalists much higher on their national agendas.
One example of the detrimental effects of disinformation on businesses was given by Todor Ivanov, secretary general of Euro Coop, whose organisation brings together some 7 000 local consumer cooperatives.
He said that the misconception of cooperatives being a remnant of the communist past has led to poor customer appeal and even to some legislative barriers being put in place due to "communist" prejudice.
I would like to reaffirm the need for fact-based claims, and consumer education and information, he stressed.
Flavio Grazian from the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) said that some proposals in the plan, such as strengthening media literacy, may be more difficult to achieve in practice.
He welcomed the fact that the document acknowledged the digital transformation of society and said that the EDAP's proposals on countering disinformation should be implemented in line with the Digital Services Act.
The EDAP sets out plans for new legislation on political advertising, revised rules on the financing of European political parties, a recommendation on the safety of journalists, and an initiative to curb the abusive use of lawsuits against public participation. A new
media ownership monitor is also in the pipeline, together with instruments to enable costs to be imposed on those who spread disinformation, as part of the EU's improved toolbox for countering foreign interference.
The EDAP is one of the priorities of the Commission's work programme for 2020 and is part of an ensemble of Commission initiatives aimed at driving the new push for Europe to face the challenges of the digital age. The set of initiatives includes the new rule of law mechanism, the new strategy to strengthen the application of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan.
This hearing will feed into the EESC's opinion on the Democracy Action Plan, which will be discussed and voted on at the plenary session in June.