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Inside the European Union's action plan for democracy

By Cécile McGrath
Oct 7, 2020
5 MIN. READ

We examine how the European Action Plan for Democracy aims to fight unlawful election interference and manipulation.

Given their diffuse nature, attacks on the democratic fabric of European Union member states are difficult to identify systematically. Nevertheless, the media regularly reports such attacks. A recent report by the European Commission on the 2019 European Parliament elections pointed to several instances of interference, including cyberattacks, data protection violations, and several other election-related complaints. These threats are still ongoing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of which makes the European Democracy Action Plan, due at the end of 2020, particularly timely.

Led by Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vĕra Jourovà, the European Action Plan for Democracy concentrates on combatting threats that are the most harmful to freedom of expression and the expression of civil and political rights. The plan aims to preserve the cornerstones of European democracies from threats: of electoral manipulation through political party financing and electoral advertising, and of threats to media pluralism and disinformation.

The European Democracy Action Plan in context

The European Commission has taken action against external interference since the mid-2000s, but the focus of these actions has evolved. The Commission started with measures to protect critical infrastructures and respond to cyber attacks, while the emphasis on electoral manipulation and disinformation is more recent.

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Now, the European Democracy Action Plan represents the boldest and most comprehensive plan for two specific reasons.

First, the European Democracy Action Plan offers a series of legislative measures on hybrid threats, building on previous actions mostly considered the domain of “soft law.” This move will ramp up much needed legal instruments against external interference. Being included as one of the six Commission priorities for 2019-2024 (as part of the “A New Push for Democracy” initiative), and being in line with the geopolitical ambitions of the Van der Leyen Commission, will provide the political impulse required to bring the plan to fruition.

Vĕra Jourovà hopes to have the plan adopted and ratified by member states in time to lessen the risks of external threats at the 2024 European Parliament elections. This timing is as commendable as it is ambitious because it would require clarifying the existing legislative basis for addressing external interference threats in each member state in a reasonably short time. The timing would also require national governments (and/or Parliament) to vote in favor of EU law (in a scenario where legal instruments are directives).

The second distinctive feature of the European Democracy Action Plan is its effort to increase coordination between relevant structures and other actors (such as online platforms). The effort will consolidate previous recommendations on the topic, including:

  • The Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation.
  • The 2018 Communication on “Increasing Resilience and Bolstering Capabilities to Address Hybrid Threats".
  • The Code of Practice against Disinformation of September 2018.

The time is ripe in terms of collaboration with online platforms, with signatories to the Code of Practice against Disinformation (including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Twitter) having already agreed to annual self-assessment reports on their efforts to implement the Code of Practice.

What will the European Democracy Action Plan entail?

We anticipate the European Democracy Action Plan will cover the following three areas.

  1. Integrity of European elections and political advertising. This issue is particularly significant because purveyors of disinformation also pay for political advertising, and European political parties may be subject to manipulation and fraud. The plan will, therefore, most likely advocate for more transparency on paid political advertising, and will also probably support the 2019 Council’s conclusions on free and fair European elections. To preserve electoral integrity, the European Democracy Action Plan shall include further measures to make citizens more sensitive to electoral manipulation risks. Therefore, the EC has announced enhanced support for education in active citizenship and measures to support citizens and authorities in maintaining electoral integrity.
  2. Strengthening media freedom and media pluralism. These measures are essential given that some member states have not firmly established the tradition of media plurality and independence (due, for example, to who owns certain large broadcasting corporations or to increasing oversight from certain national governments). The European Commission will combine measures to support the media sector, including competitiveness in the digital era, and support citizens in becoming media literate and able to access and critically assess media content. These measures will come in addition to the EU's funding packages for media plurality through Creative Europe and the digital service infrastructure of the Connecting Europe Facility.
  3. Tackling disinformation. Disinformation, or “fake news,” has become so widespread that it is now ubiquitous: 96% of respondents to the European Commission’s public consultation on “fake news” reported they have come across it. Disinformation is a standard tool to destabilize European elections, as reported by the East Stratcom Task Force. Here, in collaboration with online platforms, the European Democracy Action Plan will work to ensure the integrity of services against inauthentic accounts and behaviors. The plan will also aim to ensure more systematic cooperation with fact-checkers across EU member states, provide data and search tools for the research community, and work with genuinely independent research organizations.

The need to engage citizens and civil society

It will be necessary for the European Commission to adapt the European Democracy Action Plan's governance approach to our current digital era of heightened connectivity and interaction. Top-down legislative instruments will not be enough. The action plan also needs to be part of a bottom-up drive for change—a shared ambition of European institutions that they all too often fall short of accomplishing.

All of civil society—and all citizens—need to be involved. This involvement was noted by Member of the European Parliament Victor Negrescu during the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) of July 7, 2020, following the 2019 Council’s conclusions on “securing free and fair elections.” Civil society and citizens can then act as change agents, pressuring public authorities and platforms, and working as whistle-blowers to support the action plan.

The public consultation on the Action Plan, launched on July 15, 2020, goes some way toward acknowledging the perspective of citizens—but the European Commission needs to go much further. The communication campaign regarding the European Democracy Action Plan should also support this bottom-up drive for change. This communication campaign should not only have the virtue of informing citizens of the risks of external threats, but it should also encourage them to work with the European Commission to fight against external threats and protect Europe’s democracies.

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By Cécile McGrath