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Defence of Democracy Package: the recommendation on electoral resilience unpacked

December 15, 2023 • By Sam van der Staak
credits to Arnaud Jaegers

On Tuesday, the European Commission launched its long-awaited Defence of Democracy package. For months, public debate around the package has been absorbed by controversy over its Directive on interest representation by third countries, the centrepiece of which is a transparency register for donations from outside the EU. However, the two accompanying Recommendations, on electoral resilience and promoting citizen engagement in policymaking, have received less attention. This analysis will digest the former of the two, aiming to understand the direction of EU thinking on elections and democracy at both the EU and member state level.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

The Recommendation on inclusive and resilient electoral processes in the Union and enhancing the European nature and efficient conduct of the elections to the European Parliament presents an overview of some of the emerging priorities for electoral integrity. In thirteen chapters, it discusses such diverse topics as inclusive participation, election integrity, election observation, and foreign funding.

Priority topics

The list of priorities includes innovative topics such as online political advertising, gender-targeted public funding to political parties, special voting arrangements, electoral risk management, and third party funding. As such, the Recommendation is a blueprint of where the new frontier of electoral administration in Europe is moving. While some member states will welcome such innovations, others will be more sceptical. North-Western Europe is traditionally more weary of over-regulating elections, while conservative member will push back against progressive issues, such as gender-targeted public funding.

The theme of foreign interference in elections receives significant attention throughout the Recommendation, as it cuts across such key areas as cyberattacks, disinformation and funding by third countries. The text is also more outspoken with regard to this theme and calls on member states to adopt complete bans on third country donations, a practice that is still allowed by seven member states. Twelve member states lack full bans on anonymous donations, providing a loophole for foreign funding.

Three key developments

The choice of topics in the Recommendation signals three key developments: first, that the European Commission is increasingly confident to work on electoral issues, which has traditionally been a member state competency. In the last decade, the Commission has legislated the behaviour of European political parties and refined the rules for European elections. In 2019, it established the European Cooperation Network on Elections (ECNE), thus engaging more directly with member state electoral commissions.

The current Commission has continued in this path. It has taken its work on member state elections a step further by legislating, under the rubric of internal market harmonisation, topics that indirectly affect national political parties and elections. This includes online political advertising and now foreign funding. This latest Recommendation, although lacking legislative power, covers the full spectrum of electoral system and electoral management design. The Recommendation therefore signals that the Commission has become an important electoral actor within the EU and wishes to continue that role. The language on codes of conduct for fair campaigning shows its determination to use a broad spectrum of soft-law instruments in fulfilling its electoral integrity objectives.

The second development is that the EU is further formalising its role as a Europe-wide electoral standard setter. Even without the legal muscle of a regulation or directive, member states can voluntarily use the document as a non-binding standard to analyse their elections frameworks against this recommendation. At a moment where other electoral peer review bodies, such as the OSCE, are struggling with the internal dynamics of having Russia and Belarus as member states, there could be a benefit in additional Europe-wide bodies that present good electoral standards.  

Thirdly, the Recommendation signals that the Commission increasingly considers electoral integrity key to prevent democratic backsliding within the Union. For ten years, the EU has invested in rule of law monitoring to stem democratic regression in member states such as Hungary and Poland. As of late, however, a growing recognition has emerged that electoral integrity is equally crucial to preventing backsliding. Capable and independent electoral bodies, well-defined campaign and political finance rules, enhanced electoral observation, greater plurality of campaign media, and avoiding the abuse of special voting arrangements are seen as ways to prevent incumbent governments from capturing electoral processes.

The European Cooperation Network on Elections  

Throughout the recommendation, the ECNE is mentioned 29 times as a conveyor for disseminating trends and best practices between member states. The ECNE was established shortly before the 2019 European elections to foster collaboration between electoral management bodies in the 27 member states. This followed increased global attention to online threats to electoral integrity after votes in the US and UK. The strong emphasis on the Network in the Recommendation reflects the Commission’s search for a vehicle to consistently address electoral integrity throughout the Union. Five years after its establishment for cybersecurity purposes, and after having added new topics to its priorities in recent years, the ECNE has potential to grow further.

The Network now finds itself at a turning point. It will either remain the platform for periodic and informal exchange that it has been thus far or take a more central role in elections across Europe, such as through a formalised secretariat. It is likely that various member states, wary of maintaining their competency of legislating and managing elections, will be cautious about expanding the ECNE beyond its current informal role.

However, to deliver on the ambitious coordination goals outlined in the Recommendation, the Commission and member states will be faced with the decision of whether to formalise and intensify the role of the Network. Levelling up the ECNE would include vesting a new secretariat with the role of supporting knowledge exchange, organising peer visits, investing in research, and developing common standards. A more formal role for the ECNE could stimulate members to participate more actively in on-site knowledge exchange and in co-creating joint electoral management solutions.

At the same time, further formalization would run into questions of overlap with other elections standard setting bodies, of which the OSCE-ODIHR and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission are the best-known ones. For its success to happen, the Network would have to define its complementarity to these existing networks, of which all EU members are also participating states. The EU will moreover have to justify to certain member states why such a formalised role is needed when elections have traditionally been seen as a member state competency.

Looking ahead

In sum, the Recommendation on Electoral Resilience is a solid overview of priorities to enhance electoral integrity within the EU, covering many cutting-edge topics. The initial response of European democracy organisations to it has been generally positive. Importantly, the Recommendation signals a growing familiarity and ease of the Commission in dealing with electoral topics. This comes at an important time, less than six months before the European Elections, and with elections at the root of democratic backsliding among some of its members and in its neighbourhood.

Whether the Commission can continue to grow as a leading electoral standard setter, and support its members in meeting those standards, will depend on how it collaborates with member states. The capacities of the European Cooperation Network on Elections will be a central vehicle in making these political ambitions become reality. Finally, the upward trajectory of the Commission’s work on electoral integrity will ultimately depend on the next Commission President, and his or her priority to safeguard European democracy.

Sincere thanks to Marilyn Neven, Alisa Schaible, Nana Kalandadze, Thijs Heinmaa, Peter Wolf and Chiara Grigolo for their input and review

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About the authors

Sam van der Staak
Director for Regional Europe
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