The EU’s emerging response to foreign interference, as it is currently debated in the EU Parliament, contains striking similarities to arguments put forth by some governments around the world seeking to justify harsh restrictions on foreign funding and “foreign agents.” This risks producing serious ramifications for civic spaces and international civil society support — both within and beyond the EU.
Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, foreign interference in Western democracies’ domestic processes has been a major topic on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States has started to track “authoritarian interference” by Russia and China in North American and European countries. Situating foreign interference in a broader context of what is called hybrid threats, EU institutions have adopted a range of legislative acts, in policy areas like “energy security, safeguarding of critical infrastructure, data protection, screening of foreign investment and transparency of political funding.” In June 2020, the European Parliament (EP) decided to step up the fight against foreign interference by setting up a special committee endowed with the task to analyze the broad range of forms of foreign interference in democratic institutions and processes of the EU and its member states as well as to propose recommendations for a proper response. In March 2022, the EP officially adopted the committee’s report on “foreign interference in all democratic processes in the European Union.”
The starting point of the report is the perception “that malicious and authoritarian foreign state and non-state actors [such as Russia, China, and others] are using information manipulation and other tactics to interfere in democratic processes in the EU.” This threat perception has only increased with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, which was accompanied by “disinformation of an unparalleled malice and magnitude.” At its core, the report outlines a detailed list of elements for a future EU strategy against foreign interference.
One element of the report poses a serious problem. Based on an overly broad notion of what constitutes foreign interference that violates universal democratic and human rights standards, the report recommends potentially severe restrictions on the foreign funding of civil society organizations (CSOs). In doing so, in an official resolution adopted with overwhelming support, the EP explicitly endorses arguments that, in recent years, have been put forward by various governments around the world to justify what has been dubbed the “shrinking” or “closing” of civic spaces. This raises the concern that the EU’s response to what it perceives as a threat to democracy might, inadvertently, pave the way for measures that do more harm than good to democracy in Europe and worldwide.
In fact, there have already been initiatives within the EP explicitly aimed at increasing restrictions on EU-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as well. Most notably, back in 2017, a draft report on budgetary control of financing NGOs from the EU budget, among other things, included the demand to restrict EU funding to NGOs that “argue by means of verifiable facts” that their objectives are not “contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union, democracy, human rights and/or strategic commercial and security-policy objectives of the European Union Institutions.” Even if such ideas will perhaps never become official EU policy, one can well imagine certain EU member states using the EP resolution to justify their ongoing attempts to restrict foreign funding of CSOs. In addition, the EP’s approach to foreign interference also contradicts the EU’s external efforts aimed at countering the shrinking of civic spaces worldwide.
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