Bruegel, The Transatlantic Foundation of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and GLOBSEC: Democracy Tour: The Eleventh Hour to strengthen democracy in the EU?

by | Mar 25, 2024

(March 21, 2024 – Bruegel, Brussels)

Speakers:

  • Vera Jourová, Vice-President for Values and Transparency, European Commission
  • Márta Pardavi, Co-chair, Hungarian Helsinki Committee
  • Daniel Hegedűs, Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Foundation/GMFUS

Moderator:

  • Heather Grabbe, Senior Fellow, Bruegel

Vera Jourová opened the panel, reminding us that if we fail to have fair elections, we have trouble in the whole European Union. She highlighted cybersecurity as a field to invest in, especially in the light of foreign interference, disinformation and deepfakes.

Talking about Russia, Jourová underlined that stopping the support for Ukraine would mean that Putin wins, and we cannot let that happen. She warned us about three conditions which could lead to a successful pro-Russian campaign in the Member States: a historically rooted sentiment, low resilience of the society and political proxies. She emphasized that we have to defeat Russian propaganda, even if we have to fight by means and tools that we have never expected to use in the EU. She mentioned the sanctions, and that she was accused of “being a censor of Europe” prohibiting media in the EU. To her biggest surprise, some even asked her: “What if we give a bad example to Putin?” Jourová expressed that she can only consider reactions like this naivety and a lack of understanding where we are.

Jourová reminisced about other unprecedented things, like supporting Russian journalists in exile. The protection of democracy in the information space is an especially important topic nowadays. Developing a healthier, safer environment for the citizens, without censorship, but rather with measures which create space for evidence-based truth while they support public service media and independent, private media.

Jourová highlighted rule of law as a precondition of democracy, together with fundamental rights. She explained that some governments tear down civil society because “nothing is more dangerous for autocrats than active citizens”. She thinks that the limitation of powers is key, because there must be a counter-power to stop such processes. Years ago, she was asked to “stop being biased” and although she didn’t feel like she was, she admitted that the EU should apply the same methodology for all Member States.

Talking about quantitative indicators, she brought up the rule of law report which serves as a preventive tool to do something about negative tendencies. Money has proven to be another, if not an even more effective tool. The conditionality for financial support was considered as a scandal by many, but it was still introduced – and it actually seems to be working, for example in the case of the Hungarian government.

Jourová wanted to include the issue of technologies too. She was asked many times whether democracy can survive digitalisation. Her answer was that democracy has to get digitalized. “For disinformation, the digital space is the highway.” We have to adapt to the digital era and communicate the topics before they are infected by disinformation, but it requires a change of mindset. According to Jourová, it must be done by sectors, since disinformation always has a “flavour” such as Green Deal, migration or LGBT. To support the truth, Jourová talked to factcheckers and media organisations in Member States.

As a last topic, Jourová mentioned AI, “fantastic” according to some, “apocalyptic” according to others. She feels like the media should be more protected from AI. She announced that the Commission made an agreement with big digital platforms about removing deepfakes, and political parties will be encouraged to do the same. At the end of her speech, Jourová noted that no system will ever be perfect, but as European citizens feel it too, it is time to be active and protect democracy and evidence-based truth.

Márta Pardavi explained that democracy and democratic institutions are so closely tied with security, that they are basically one. She addressed that there are a lot of internal and external pressure concerning this, and because of that we have to adapt not only our thinking, but also our tools and resources. Pardavi is Hungarian and she expressed how painful it is to read any democracy report on her country and watch Hungary rapidly lose credits.

Pardavi talked about the three things that come undone under pressure: freedom of expression, election integrity and freedom of association. She said that civil society and active citizens are key, but people are afraid that harm will come to them, and it is holding them back. But the same way illiberal playbook users come together to discuss their strategies, we also have to. She noted that we should use the single market freedom and the courts, and make sure that enforcement works too.

According to Pardavi, we also need a protection mechanism in the EU, so we would have a better reaction mechanism to issues, including support. She thinks we need to think through whether we need to upgrade our legal system. But one thing is for sure, it will not work without resources. Pardavi suggested smarter funding, monitoring, and instead of coming up with new tools, fortifying our current ones.

Daniel Hegedűs stated that over the past two years, we have witnessed an unparalleled de-democratization of some Member States. The proposed measures did not focus however on the most important, but on the least controversial areas. He noted that foreign interference is not the source of the issue, it only amplifies the illiberal and authoritarian challenge. We have also seen that law can be a subject to political changes. Refocusing from foreign interference to domestic challenges could be a way to handle this.

According to Hegedűs, the Commission should “put money where its mouth is”, namely civil society and active citizens, while democratic and civic education should be supported too. Hegedűs agreed that a change of mindset is required, but he thinks there have already been signs of this, such as a focus on enforcement and on changing the cost-benefit calculations of other players. He also underlined that a proper categorization is needed, especially related to political advertising.

Jourová wanted to make it clear that adapting to the new ways does not mean adapting to bad things. When asked about what kind of advice she would give to her successor, she admitted that “you can screw it up horribly by being too passive or too activistic” so her advice would be to not try to be popular or introduce new rules “for a medal”. Helping the implementation processes would be more useful, just like protecting free political discussion. She would also suggest being careful with the money and recalculate priorities.

Jourová drew attention to deliberative democracy which has to be a two-street way between politics and citizens. We have to be mindful of the politicians-topic-citizens triangle and use new ways of communication to invite people into the conversations. We need their feedback, and we have to work with that in an honest and transparent way, making it systematic. She thinks that the Commission of the future should do more testing early on and use a system of focus groups. Jourová declared that Ursula von der Leyen also supported early consultations, so if she gets to stay the President of the Commission, the institution will definitely think about that. As a final thought, Jourová expressed that not doing something is still better than fake communications.


You can watch the event here.

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