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Op-ed | EU’s Defense of Democracy Package May Backfire in Georgia

On December 12, 2023, the European Commission finally unveiled its Defence of Democracy Package. A foreign funding directive of the package turned out specifically problematic as it aims to establish harmonized “transparency and accountability standards” for those engaged in “interest representation” within the internal market. The proposal introduces a registry for entities engaged in third-country “interest representation,” intending to influence policy, legislation, or public decision-making inside the EU. Upon registration, these entities would be assigned a European Interest Representation number (EIRN), which is obligatory for any interactions with public officials.


Kristina Pitalskaya is a civic activist based in Brussels and a regular contributor to Civil.ge


To many Georgians, the idea is painfully familiar. Almost a year ago, heroic efforts from civil society leaders and young students became necessary to beat back what they have termed “the Russian law proposed and voted for by Georgia’s ruling party. That law – especially superficially – bears a striking semblance to the EC proposal . Same stated concern for “transparency” is brought as a justification, and a similar solution to create a registry is proposed. There are crucial differences in the gravity of foreseen sanctions, and – obviously – Brussels does not intend to shut down Europe’s non-governmental actors, unlike some in Georgia’s ruling majority. But the optics of the step are terrible for Georgia’s CSOs already.

Yes, in the EU, too, considerable concerns exist regarding the potential repercussions of the new EC directive on civil society, the expedited initial process, and the broader impact on the EU’s credibility as a champion of democratic values. As Nicholas Aiossa of Transparency International – EU told me in a recent interview, there is significant opposition to the EC proposal from European civil society. They critique the Brussels decision to single out organizations based on their foreign funding source only rather than the nature of their work (lobbying) – a stance that contradicts EC’s previous opposition to similar measures in Russia, Hungary, and Georgia. There are also fears that the directive could significantly impact various civil society organizations and private and public institutions in suspected of representing foreign interests, including universities and research centres.

Nicholas Aiossa | EU Foreign Agent Law: Time is of the Essence

But in countries like Georgia, that fear runs deeper. The unintended – yet foreseeable – chain reaction has already started. Hungary enacted the “Sovereignty Defence Act” in January 2024 and justified it by referencing the Commission’s proposed directive. EU finds itself on the back foot as it is trying to counter the Hungarian law because it restricts democracy. Smarting after the defeat of a similar initiative by the EU-flag-bearing citizens on streets last March, Georgia’s ruling party may relish the possibility of reviving the discussions on the relevance of the law, this time in an updated context of only conforming with the EU’s regulations. In the election year, the temptation to simultaneously rally the anti-CSO hardline-fringe while credibly pretending to go along with the EU may be too difficult to resist.

The EU has valid reasons to emphasize the need to defend democracy in these troubled times. But questions arise whether “foreign interference” represents the paramount threat deserving such focused attention. If anything, recent scandals, such as the European Parliament Qatargate, highlight the internal vulnerability of European institutions and the ease with which civil society, a vital component of democratic infrastructure, can be discredited.

The EC proposal seeks to set global standards for addressing foreign influence while respecting fundamental rights. However, in the current climate, when the government inside the EU and just at its doorstep are increasing pressure on civil society, the directive may inadvertently stigmatize critical voices and potentially discourage civil society engagement on the EU level while falling short of addressing the internal threats to the EU’s democracy.

Ultimately, the EU’s ability to influence positive democratic change in its neighbouring countries may be affected by the unintended harm the new directive does to its reputation as a defender of democratic values. EU cannot ignore the spillover effects, not after it has been extensively warned both from within the EU and from the outside. It should take its fair share of responsibility already now.

For Georgian activists, it is crucial to recall that the Commission’s proposal is merely the initial step in a lengthy legislative process involving the EU co-legislators – the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. Still, there is only limited time before the June 2024 elections for the new EU Parliament. Georgian activists and experts must get ready to work with EU counterparts to ensure early monitoring, rapid coordination, and a high level of scrutiny. EU must hear the voices of those who would be at the firing line, including Georgia’s civic leaders.

There is a need to reframe the debate and work together to build democratic resilience, and civil society is the EU’s ally in this process by leading investigations and improving the information environment. A recent investigation revealed that 163 out of the 704 current Members of the European Parliament were involved in scandals or breaking the law, which suggests a concerning level of corruption within the EU’s legislative body. The recent revelation of a Latvian Member of the European Parliament acting as a Russian spy agent has also rightly prompted alarm among EU leaders, indicating the possibility of deeper foreign interference. Civil society organizations are on the EU’s side in fixing the political process including by promoting more transparency in ways that nurture democracy and debate rather than give weapons to those who want to stem them in the bud.

The viable and correct long-term response to the malign influence of undemocratic leaders would be to amend the scope of the directive, emphasizing its commitment to safeguarding democracy and protecting civil society. In particular, the EU must proactively and vocally engage with partner countries to preempt any misinterpretations that harm civil society beyond the EU. While imperfections in this rapidly changing environment are natural, this moment also presents an opportunity for the EU to reiterate that it sees civil society as an ally, not a threat to democratic values.


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