NGOs Warn EU Against Foreign Interference Law

In a statement to the President of the European Commission, NGOs warn that such legislation could damage the EU’s credibility in defending human rights abroad and comfort repressive leaders.

A European Commission plan to create a register of foreign-funded organizations could have “unintended consequences” and limit the EU’s ability to support human rights defenders around the world. This is the warning issued by dozens of NGOs in a joint statement addressed to the Commission.

Some 230 civil society organizations, including Transparency International EU, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, signed the text sent to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday in which they blast the proposal on foreign interference .

The institution has not yet published its draft but has contacted civil society organizations in recent months to ask them to provide evidence.

According to NGOs contacted by the EU, the Commission argues that a new legal instrument is needed “to introduce common standards of transparency and accountability for interest representation services paid or run from outside the EU , to contribute to the proper functioning of the internal market and to protect the democratic sphere of the EU against covert external interference”.

These NGOs, however, warn against the risk of encouraging repressive leaders around the world and damaging the credibility of the EU when it comes to denouncing restrictive laws in third countries.

They claim that such laws already enforced have drastically reduced the space for independent civil society and “have been used as a tool to silence critical voices”.

“There are reasons why the Commission has criticized foreign agent laws abroad and why it has taken Hungary to court over a similar domestic law,” says Nick Aiossa, deputy director of Transparency International EU, in a press release.

“It is simply insane that the Commission refuses to do its homework and fully assess the real risks that this type of legislation poses to civil society and journalists,” he adds.

Hungary’s introduction in 2017 of a foreign interference law requiring organizations that receive at least 7.2 million forints (€19,000) per year from foreign sources to register as such with the court and to produce an annual report on their foreign funding prompted the Commission to quickly initiate infringement proceedings against Budapest.

Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans then said the law was not in line with EU law, which the EU Court of Justice confirmed in a judgment in June 2020.

More recently, the Georgian government’s plan to introduce such a “foreign influence” law was scrapped in March, after sparking days of protests across the country.

This law, inspired by a Russian version and which would have obliged any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as a “foreign agent” under penalty of fines, was denounced by the head of EU diplomacy as a “very bad development for Georgia and its people”.

In a statement released after the law passed its first reading by the Georgian Parliament, Josep Borrell said the law as drafted could have a “chilling effect on civil society and media organizations”. , that it was “incompatible with EU values and standards” and could therefore have “serious repercussions” on relations between the Union and Georgia.

In their statement to Ursula von der Leyen, the NGOs call on the European Commission to carry out an impact study before publishing any proposal for a European law on foreign interference. These assessments are required before the Commission can propose legislation that may have significant economic, social or environmental consequences.

The European Commission specifies that it is preparing “a package on the defense of democracy. This package will include a concrete legislative initiative aimed at protecting our democracies by imposing obligations of transparency on activities aimed at influencing public decision-making and the democratic debate in the EU carried out by entities financed by or having links with third countries.”

“In view of the actions of the Kremlin and other third country actors, we must not be naïve. It is high time to shed light on covert foreign influence and hidden funding,” added a spokesperson.

He underlines that “the next proposal does not aim to reduce activities, but exclusively to establish common standards of transparency. It will also aim to promote a broad and meaningful participation of civil society and citizens”.

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