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EU ‘foreign agents’ law spooks NGOs

EU ‘foreign agents’ law spooks NGOs

by host

BRUSSELS — The European Union is working on a law that would force nongovernmental groups, consultancies and academic institutions to disclose any non-EU funding as part of a crackdown on foreign influence in the bloc, three sources confirmed to POLITICO.

The planned legislation, which is in very early stages, echoes similar laws in Australia and the United States. In the U.S., the Foreign Agents Registration Act has required lobbyists working on behalf of foreign governments to register with the federal government since 1938.

The EU’s version is unlikely to target individuals, but would make both commercial and nonprofit organizations around the bloc reveal non-EU funding pertaining to transactions such as paying for academic study, according to one European Commission official who asked not to be named in order to discuss preliminary thinking around the law, which is due to be finalized in late May.

Europe has been grappling with an array of foreign influence operations over recent years — from Russian hack-and-leak campaigns designed to change election outcomes, to Chinese grants for universities aiming to shape rhetoric on human rights, to — most recently — the Qatargate corruption scandal that has rocked the European Parliament.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a “defense of democracy” package during her State of the Union speech last September, which kicked off work on the foreign influence bill led by Commission Vice President for Justice Věra Jourová.

Yet critics are calling the timing awkward. The EU was ramping up work on the proposal just as Georgia erupted in protests over a similar bill, which would have forced organizations to register as “agents of foreign influence” if more than 20 percent of their funding came from abroad.

That bill, widely perceived as an attempt to tighten government control along Russian lines, was withdrawn after massive protests last week.

“It’s obviously a delicate matter,” said the Commission official. “We are still in the early stages of gathering information from a wide range of stakeholders to make sure we are taking the right approach.”

Showing just how sensitive the matter is, NGOs are bristling over a preliminary questionnaire sent out on behalf of the Commission that is supposed to feed into an impact assessment due to be wrapped up in April as part of the law’s drafting.

According to a copy of the survey seen by POLITICO, respondents are already being asked to detail their sources of non-EU funding.

This question about funding “took a lot of people aback,” said Nick Aiossa, head of policy and advocacy at Transparency International, who said he participated in an oral questionnaire with the third party conducting the survey. “The guiding questions suggested they were evaluating whether Transparency International was a threat to democracy.”

Some NGOs voiced concern that if Europe goes ahead with its own version of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, it could be weaponized by strongmen like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to clamp down on pro-democracy forces in their country. 

To assuage concerns, Jourová will hold a series of meetings with civil society groups later this week, the official said.

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