The Brief – In defence of democracy

The Brief – In defence of democracy |

Rumours are swirling that the European Commission is close to tabling a new law that targets lobbying and Russian and Chinese influence as part of its ‘Defence of Democracy’ programme.

We hear the draft bill is so hush-hush that the select few lucky enough to read its latest version must do so in a monitored reading room and take no notes or pictures. The Commission denies that it is preparing a bill modelled on the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The danger, several insiders told Euractiv, is that by focusing on the geopolitics of Russian and Chinese influence, the new law misses the wider opportunity to increase the transparency of the links foreign governments, politicians, and companies establish with lobbyists and EU lawmakers. 

Corruption has existed for as long as humanity has had government. What EU lawmakers can and should do is make it harder.

As a step in the right direction, it appears that some lessons from the recent Qatargate scandal – though not all – have been learned. 

Last week, EU parliamentarians agreed to tighten their internal rules on interest groups, lobbying by former MEPs, and financial disclosure of any side jobs they have worth €5,000 a year or more. These are significant steps but hardly radical: The European Parliament’s transparency rules were far too lax for too long.  

Elsewhere, plans for an EU ethics body that most MEPs fear will be toothless do not appear to be moving anywhere fast. The Commission’s proposal that the new body should have three permanent employees alongside a budget of €600,000, a fraction of the cash seized by police in raids related to Qatargate, does not inspire much confidence either. 

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Commission Vice President Vera Jourová, who is leading this work, in wanting to tackle malign foreign influence and interference in European politics and civil society. 

However, as we have seen, transparency rules can be abused if they are not tightly framed. 

In Hungary, rules on foreign funding of NGOs and civil society have been abused by Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government to wage a culture war against the likes of Open Society founder George Soros and groups promoting LGBT rights.

It is not unrealistic to expect that the Italian government, among others, could use an EU law on foreign funding to make the work of NGOs performing migrant rescues in the Mediterranean Sea even harder. 

There is another practical consideration for the Commission: In just over six months, the European Parliament enters election campaign mode and will effectively shut down until July.

Any laws not finalised by then will automatically be scrapped. Given that the average EU law takes over 18 months from publication to adoption, the window for a foreign influence act is very small and getting narrower by the day. 

If the EU is going to legislate on lobbying, it needs to keep such laws simple and hard for member states to distort and misuse. Harmonising lobbying transparency registers, with details on the contracts between third parties and lobbyists, is the best place to start. 

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The Roundup

Microsoft is getting closer to a successful merger with video game-holding company Activision Blizzard, as the British Competition and Markets Authority said on Friday that the revised offer from the tech giant sufficiently addressed their concerns.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be deployed in limited cases to ensure e-fuels reach full climate neutrality, green group Transport & Environment has told Euractiv, responding to claims by e-fuel producers that 100% emissions reductions are not possible.

Young conservatives came together in Brussels to talk about how they see the future of Europe, in response to the Conference on the Future of Europe, the EU democracy experiment promoted by the institutions, where randomly selected citizens had a say in EU policymaking.

Members of the European Parliament welcomed the proposed revamp of the bloc’s regulatory framework for pharmaceuticals during a discussion this week but did not shy away from criticising certain aspects.

US President Joe Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday that strong US support for his war to repel Russian invaders will be maintained despite opposition from some Republican lawmakers to sending billions more in aid.

Last but not least, don’t miss this week’s Economy Brief and the Tech Brief.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice-President Vĕra Jourová receives Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili on Monday.
  • Competitiveness Council (Internal market and industry) on Monday.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]


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