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Amidst the immense socio-economic and political fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU commitment to and support of democracy is more important than ever. In 2019, the European Commission set out plans for a new push for European democracy which included a European Democracy Action Plan. This paper underlines how the Action Plan can provide a comprehensive framework and vision to guide the EU and its Member States to strengthen and protect democracy in Europe.

This comprehensive input paper on the European Democracy Action Plan – coordinated by EPD – brings together the expertise and recommendations from 48 civil society organisations.* The input paper takes a deep dive into what actions are needed to rejuvenate democracy when it comes to civic space and active citizenship, disinformation and platform governance, election integrity, and media pluralism and safety of journalists. The paper includes a wide range of recommendations, detailing action points from the European Citizens Initiative and an expanded EU Rule of Law mechanism, to a decentralised funding framework for tackling disinformation and transparency measures to deal with political advertising.

* The organisations that are listed as contributors to the paper do not necessarily endorse the paper in its entirety, but contributed to the paper with their ideas, insights, research, and recommendations.

Summary of key recommendations

Citizens, and the CSOs that represent them, need to be centerstage of any EU action to reinvigorate democracy, including the European Democracy Action Plan. This includes creating an enabling environment for citizens to take up a proactive role in shaping inclusive decision-making, amongst others by conducting civic space impact assessments for all EU legislative proposals and developing a comprehensive policy framework on civic space. To this end, the Fundamental Rights Agency’s mandate needs to be reviewed and expanded, and the rule of law mechanism needs to be broadened in scope. The Commission also needs to propose a directive against Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) that covers media workers and civil society actors against whom abusive lawsuits are pursued. Finally, European actors must reinvigorate decision-making with new bottom-up participatory methods and reinforce existing channels of participation. To this end, an inter-institutional agreement on civil dialogue is needed, as is a reform of online consultations.

There is an urgent need to make elections more inclusive, representative and transparent in Europe. This includes endorsing the spitzenkandidaten principle, ensuring the equality of suffrage rights, the right to vote and inclusiveness of persons with disabilities, improving the overall accessibility of elections, and reforming political party and campaign finance. In line with the EU’s external election observation activities, the EU should establish and promote enabling mechanisms for citizen election observation of European and Member States’ elections in line with international principles and regional commitments. As for the integrity of the democratic debate and political campaigning online, the main structural reform needed is universal transparency of all online advertising, from targeting criteria to the amount spent per campaign. Measures to limit microtargeting of political ads, preventing it from happening without a valid legal basis, are also crucial. The European Cooperation Network on Elections has an important role to play in coordinating between Member States on all of these issues.

: The European Democracy Action Plan will need to set the framework for a rights-based Digital Services Act package, to address the power and information asymmetry from digital gatekeepers like Google and Facebook who have a major impact on democracy. The need for enhanced transparency is a basic precondition for any accountability. The recommendations include a variety of ideas for how to make platforms more accountable to government and citizens. In addition, the European Commission needs to set up a holistic decentralized cooperation framework on disinformation, that provides flexible, decentralised funding to CSOs and others working to tackle disinformation. Enhanced internal and international coordination on disinformation, with a special focus on moments of increased risk like elections is also vital.

It is unacceptable that journalists face threats, harassment and even violence simply because they exercise their essential democratic function. Measures to safeguard journalists in Europe are sorely needed, in particular an internal institutional alert mechanism and the full implementation of the Council of Europe recommendation on journalist protection. In addition to specific funding for journalism and public interest media, there is a clear need to address the decoupling of advertising revenue from news content production – something that is ripping apart the old business models of media actors. The European Democracy Action Plan can pave the way towards a new newsmarket based on independent journalism and pluralistic media, specifically by calling for systematic analysis and scrutiny of information market mechanisms.

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