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A closer look at the Defence of Democracy Directive and the controversy surrounding it

The EU Commission’s Defence of Democracy Package wants to introduce a Directive to improve the transparency of activities carried out on behalf of third countries. In its current form, this Directive would do more harm than good, provoking a chilling effect on civic space and ultimately not tackling interference coming from within the EU. What is the way forward to defend democracy? 

The Defence of Democracy Package published in December 2023 includes a Directive establishing harmonised requirements in the internal market on transparency of interest representation activities carried out on behalf of third countries. The package is supposed to bring transparency and accountability for the activities carried out on behalf of third-country actors, to improve electoral processes in view of the 2024 European elections, while also fostering civic space and encouraging the engagement of civil society organisations (CSOs). 

However, key issues emerge from the legislation piece. The Directive would involve onerous burdens on CSOs, such as stigmatisation by governments and disincentivising their donors, and it comes with potentially dire geopolitical consequences: how will the EU deal with similar laws in other countries? Ultimately, the directive would fail to concretely address threats to democracy from within the Union.

It’s not the first foreign agent law

So-called “foreign agent” laws are not uncommon (see Hungary’s Sovereignty Protection Actor or the US “Foreign Agents Registration Act”) and they often require organisations to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad. Such laws have faced criticism not only from civil society but also from the European Union itself. The EU’s reasoning for regulating this space under the proposed Directive is similar to the reasoning presented by various governments around the world for foreign agent laws, aiming to justify limitations on CSOs activities funded from abroad and ultimately having a chilling effect on their activities. 

Credibility is at stake for the EU

In other countries with similar laws, the initial reaction to the EU proposal has been to say that the objectives advocated by the EU in support of this Directive align with their foreign-agent laws. This makes it evident that the interest representation Directive will trigger additional (and similar) reactions in the future, greatly affecting the EU’s geopolitical standing as an advocate for democracy and human rights globally.

Failing to address threats from within the EU

As emphasised by the Commission President in the same 2022 State of the Union speech: “Today we all see that we must fight for our democracies. Every single day.

We must protect them both from the external threats they face, and from the vices that corrode them from within.”

The statement clearly affirms that challenges to democracy arise not solely from external actors and foreign states but can also originate from domestic actors within the European Union. 

In working on this Package, EPD has consistently stressed that a transparency register focused solely on foreign-funded entities will do more harm than good. This analysis breaks down the Directive and brings forward its existing gaps, along with recommendations on the way forward. 

This analysis has been written by Eva Antoniou, Policy Officer at the European Partnership for Democracy. 

Image credits: João Marcelo Martins, Unsplash