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This article was written by Lucia Posteraro, EPD’s Communications and Events Assistant.

While the COVID-19 pandemic might seem like the only item on the policy-making agenda these days, that is far from reality: for the European Union, 2021 could be a watershed moment for a resurgence of democratic politics. From targeted proposals to windows of opportunity, the EU has many ways to strengthen legislation and consolidate partnerships in favour of democratic values. Here is a list of 5 key moments that we should look out for in the next few months.

1. Strengthening multilateralism (with a little help from Biden)

President von der Leyen’s aim to re-establish an international alliance for democracy among “like-minded partners” could find fertile ground this year, as President Biden expressed his hope to restore US-European relations through a Global Summit for Democracy. The US call for renewed multilateral cooperation aligns well with  existing European priorities and strengthens the Commission’s own strategy. Hinting at the EU’s priorities for international cooperation in a recent Communication, the Commission pledged to work for “a rules- and values-based international order” and will adopt a Joint communication on the matter on 17 February 2021.

2. More transparency and pluralism, online and offline

The EU’s democracy agenda for 2021 also foresees interesting updates on supporting transparency online and offline. The Commission has stated its intention to issue two proposals for greater transparency in paid political advertising and in the funding and auditing of pan-European political parties. The European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP), published last December, called for the same measures to ensure free and fair elections. The EDAP also committed to presenting an initiative against SLAPPs – groundless strategic lawsuits employed by powerful interests to burden media and civil society organisations working on matters of public interest. Taken together, these aspirations could shape a transparent and pluralistic European democracy beyond the ballot box, with special attention to the risks and opportunities for online politics.

3. Tech policies to serve participation and human rights

The year ahead could bring important updates for both democracy and privacy in the EU digital sphere. Announced at the end of 2020, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) are complementary to the EDAP and support increased scrutiny over online platforms’ design and business models. The provisions require companies to bear more responsibility and cooperate with relevant regulators to safeguard human rights and democracy. While the proposals might be diluted on the path to approval, they are an ambitious attempt to regulate tech giants and set common standards. The forthcoming Legislative Proposal and Updated Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence could provide additional protection for fundamental rights in the digital world, particularly in regard to the gathering and use of biometric data for remote identification purposes. 

4. Implementing a democracy-promoting budget  

The EU’s multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027 has finally been adopted and could spearhead a significant shift in EU democracy support. One unmissable decision concerns the ability to withhold funds from Member States who breach the rule of law. Parts of the budget have also been earmarked for strengthening democracy. The Neighbourhood Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) will allocate €6.3bn billion for ‘thematic’ programmes, of which one (of four) will target democracy and human rights. To counter autocratisation within the EU, the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values programme will allocate a maximum of €1.55 billion to strengthening citizen participation, gender equality and human rights. DG International Partnerships, DG Justice and EU delegations are now discussing funding priorities within these dedicated budgets.

5. Debating the Future of Europe

Last but not least, the Conference on the Future of Europe could be a real catalyst for pan-European participatory and deliberative democracy. The Commission and Parliament consider the Conference as a milestone to consolidate the EU’s democratic foundations while improving democratic processes and institutions. However, as we previously argued, EU institutions must keep citizens and civil society at the centre of discussions while ensuring inclusiveness and accessibility at all stages of the process. Follow-up on suggested reforms will also be essential to obtaining concrete and relevant results. A Conference that coherently embraces the contribution of civil actors would allow the EU to overcome the perceived democratic deficit.

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