As part of its campaign against foreign influence in the union, the European Union is developing legislation requiring non-governmental organizations, consultants, and academic institutions to report any outside financing they receive.
The proposed law, which is still in its very early stages, is reminiscent of such regulations in Australia and the US. Since 1938, the US has compelled lobbyists working for foreign governments to register with the federal government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
According to a European Commission official who anonymously spoke on the record, the EU version is unlikely to target specific people. Still, it will compel for-profit and nonprofit organizations throughout the bloc to disclose non-EU funding related to transactions like academic tuition fees. The EU will gather information and talk about early ideas for the bill, which should be completed by the end of May.
Russia’s hacking and leak campaigns aimed at influencing election results, Chinese university grants aimed at influencing human rights rhetoric, and, most recently, the Qatargate corruption scandal that shook the European Parliament are just a few of the recent foreign influence operations that Europe has had to deal with.
During her State of the Union address in September of last year, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the “democracy protection” package, which marked the beginning of work on the foreign influence bill under the direction of Commission Vice-President for Justice Vera Jourová.
Nonetheless, detractors complain that the timing is awkward. Just as demonstrations broke out in Georgia over a similar plan that would have required organizations to register as “agents of foreign influence” if more than 20% of their money came from abroad, the EU stepped up work on the idea.
After widespread protests last week, the bill many perceived as an effort to increase government restrictions a la Russia was dropped.
A preliminary questionnaire supplied by the Commission that will be included in an impact assessment that will be finished in April as part of the bill’s drafting sparked outrage from NGOs, demonstrating how sensitive the topic is.
A copy of the poll that POLITICO has seen indicates that respondents are already asked to describe their outside-the-EU funding sources.
The funding query “surprised a lot of people,” according to Nick Aiossa, director of policy and advocacy at Transparency International, who claimed to have taken part in an oral poll conducted by a third-party pollster. “The leading questions indicated that they were evaluating Transparency International as a potential danger to democracy.”
Some NGOs have expressed concern that if Europe passes its version of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, it could be used by strongmen such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to suppress pro-democracy forces in their country.
To ease concerns, the official said Jourová would hold a series of meetings with civil society groups later this week.