European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has stirred controversy over her proposal for a “Defense of Democracy package” — in fact, the package’s formal unveiling has just been indefinitely postponed. What’s the source of the pushback? The initiative’s core proposals entail reporting requirements on institutions that garner funding from third-country donors. Oddly, civil society organizations have said that this legal framework amounts to a “smear.” The Commission has lapsed in its judgement, they argue, by promulgating legislation implying they are, one and all, “potential trojan horses for foreign governments.”
Specifically, these self-professed watchdogs against state-sponsored abuse have rallied opposition to the “common transparency and accountability standards for interest representation services directed or paid for from outside the EU.” This directive’s emphasis on foreign governments rankles. They worry a hypothetical registry of institutions funded across borders — which would advance the EU’s aim to “support awareness” — might taint their work.
In reality, a measure like this has been a long time coming. The European Commission’s chief adviser on the package, Ivana Karásková, made waves last week by stating that certain governments in the bloc are in “complete denial” about the degree of Chinese and Russian interference taking place in European politics. Her arguments for this year’s timely steps have tended to adopt Brussels’s favored approach of distinguishing its legislation from previously criticized laws on the books elsewhere.
Although Karásková’s observations are valid — the proposed Transparency Act would target organizations, not individuals — they miss the point. Known unknowns underly funding of think tanks, academic institutions and nonprofits across Europe. Over the last decade, shocking anecdotal incidents have arisen amid this troubling dearth of data. China’s government has directly funneled propaganda through the media, waging outright manipulation in academic settings. These episodes show that Europe can’t ignore the issue in the hope it will merely go away.
Despite these dire circumstances, Nicholas Aiossa, deputy director of Transparency International EU, condemned the legislation last week in favor of a general “lobbying bill” that would require all relevant entities to register. Based on a dubious equivalence between corporate lobbying and state-sponsored, covert influence, this critique stubbornly insists that the perfect must remain the enemy of the good. To use the U.S. as a comparison, the database Open Secrets suggests that foreign governments, which are far less numerous than corporations, have still spent $4,115,692,742 in this country since 2016. That is a rough and incomplete approximation, based on disclosures to the Department of Justice. But it demonstrates the EU is likely not crying “wolf warrior.”
Shying away from contradictions between his position and the value — transparency — that his organization espouses, Aiossa warned the EU against hypocrisy. Pro-democracy forces in Georgia celebrated the failure of its Foreign Agents bill last March, which would have required institutions to report if they received more than 20 percent of their funding from overseas. However, the anticipated instrumentalization of that law was a product of Georgia’s political circumstances, not the data it would have collected. Had that information been used to isolate advocates for good governance, preexisting Russia interference would have been to blame.
In the meantime, debating the Defense of Democracy package into oblivion, or diluting it, would forego an important step in revealing foreign influence. The EU should have the opportunity to distinguish its package in practice. Doing otherwise would forestall meaningful steps to counteract nefarious activity that could cripple the EU in the future.
Read the rest at The Hill.
George Boden is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.