How the next European Commission can defend democracy

In her bid for a second mandate as President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen vows to ‘defend democracy from those who seek to destroy it’. This is music to Defend Democracy‘s ears. Assuming Von der Leyen is not making an empty election promise, we have some concrete suggestions for how her next Commission can start defending democracy.

First of all, the European Commission needs a dedicated Vice-President for Democracy, supported by a Directorate-General (DG) for Democracy. Currently, democracy is all over the place: the Secretariat-General, DG Justice and Consumers, DG CONNECT and the European External Action Service. For more focus, more coordination and to overcome silo-thinking, we need a dedicated Vice-President and with a dedicated DG to connect the dots between foreign, domestic and technological threats to democracy.

Secondly, we urgently need to create an independent EU Democracy Fund. If the EU wants to protect its founding values while increasing its strategic autonomy, European civil society cannot depend on a decreasing number of democratic governments and the whims of a few American billionaire donors. Therefore, the EU should substantially increase its funding in a dedicated democracy fund. This fund should have a light-weight, Erasmus-style bureaucracy and give NGOs a margin for investment, reserves and opportunity costs for failed funding bids. Besides budget from the MFF, a modest percentage of the European Investment Bank’s interest revenues could fill this EU Democracy Fund.

Third, the time to invest in democracy is now. If there is one lesson that EU leaders should learn from Ukraine, it is that democracy is closely linked to security. Supporting democracy abroad and defending it at home is security policy. Investing in stronger democracy, societal resilience and civil preparedness for Russia’s hybrid – or even conventional – warfare is not charity; it is investing in our security.

Given geopolitical developments and the rise of an authoritarian far right, the upcoming European elections are more important than ever. Not only for democracy, but also for our security. Von der Leyen should keep her promise. And from 6-9 June, please use your vote!

Defend Democracy, 8 March 2024 (slightly adapted after first being published by the European Policy Centre)