Comment

A Democracy Shield for Europe?

Richard Youngs and Elene Panchulidze / Jun 2024

Image: Shutterstock

 

In one of the most striking campaign pledges so far, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has announced that she will create a European Democracy Shield if she is re-appointed after the EU elections in June. Her proposal reflects a deepening fear that external interference is destabilizing European democracy. Von der Leyen indicates that she will attach absolute priority to protecting democracy in her second term

The Democracy Shield proposal is to enhance EU capabilities to combat the disinformation and malign online manipulation waged by foreign powers in Europe. It promises to combine existing measures under the Digital Services Act with new provisions related to AI. It builds on the EU’s so-called Defence of Democracy Package agreed in December 2023, promising to extend its measures against external interference. Responding to the Commission President’s new initiative, the Weimar Triangle states of France, Germany and Poland have also pushed to strengthen measures against malign foreign interference even further.

The promised Democracy Shield is a curious idea that reflects how distorted policy debates have become about European democracy. It implies that the fragility of European democracy is mainly the fault of external actors and is to be found in actions waged online. Yet, concerns have been gathering for some time among democracy groups that the focus on such issues is becoming somewhat myopic and imbalanced.

As citizens wise up to deep fakes and the like, it may that ‘peak vulnerability’ to disinformation may have passed. Online disinformation, targeted ads and similar influence operations do not determine elections and swing relatively few people to a different party; democracy’s bigger problem is the low number of citizens engaging in any political content at all, whether accurate or false. No cyber-security Shield can solve the problem of disinformation anyway as it flows from so many sources and has become so widespread.

Of course, robust defence is needed against disinformation and malign influence operations but this one issue has come to attract an incredibly disproportionate amount of interest and resources compared to all the other challenges to European democracy. Nearly all forums, summits and dialogues ostensibly on democracy today dedicate the largest part of their time to online disinformation and normally pay very little attention to the other vital changes needed for democratic renewal - like building more effective political parties, strengthening parliaments, opening local governments to more effective democratic accountability, or proactively helping civil society organisations.

While external actors’ assaults are certainly unsettling, most sources of European democratic malaise are internal. This is true even in the narrow realm of disinformation: most fakes of concern to European election debates originate from inside the EU itself. And adopting a wider lens, it is mainstream leaders like von der Leyen and others that have been chipping away at civic liberties from the last several years. Indeed, democracy groups accuse them of using measures supposedly aimed at foreign influence operations to constrict critical voices at home.

Leaders’ focus on digital regulation seems designed sometimes to draw out the thorny politics of democratic renewal; debates on counter-disinformation can feel strangely apolitical. As experts ponder the digital toolboxes needed to get cyber defences working pre-emptively, the tenor of such conversations feels a world away from the clash of political ideologies and power struggles that shape – or should shape – democratic politics.

The counter-disinformation agenda gives European leaders a convenient deflection from such problems. It has a quality of technical solvability that attracts resources in a way that democracy’s deeper structural problems do not. The risk is that resources are now increasingly pumped into already ballooning cyber security and defence-ministry budgets and away from the patient work of building bottom-up democratic capacity within Europe and in other countries too. This matters, because the latter work is ultimately more helpful to equip societies to deal with disinformation, and yet is slipping down the list of European priorities.

The mounting fear of a far-right surge is well grounded and of course merits top-priority responses. But, critical attentiveness is needed that mainstream politicians do not use this concern to deflect attention from their own democratic shortcomings. The Commission president’s proposal looks at the surface level of these problems and not their root causes. If a Democracy Shield is needed it is one that protects European citizens from their own elites.

 

Richard Youngs

Richard Youngs

June 2024

About this author ︎►

Elene Panchulidze

Elene Panchulidze

June 2024

About this author ︎►

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