‘The European Union is not only about parties and politics, rules or regulations, markets or currencies. It is ultimately — and above all else — about people and their aspirations. It is about people standing together. For their liberty, for their values, simply for a better future.’
– Commission President von der Leyen, 27 November 2019
Democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights are the foundations on which the European Union is based. Democracy is a core European value, and a precondition for EU membership. The EU’s citizens see democracy, human rights and the rule of law as its most important asset (1).
Democracy allows citizens to shape laws and public policies at European, national, regional and local levels. It requires safeguards, checks and balances, and institutions that fulfil their roles and uphold the rules of pluralistic democratic debate. For participation to be meaningful, citizens must also be able to form their own judgements – they should be able to make electoral choices in a public space where a plurality of views can be expressed freely and where free media, academia and civil society can play their role in stimulating open debate, free from malign interference, either domestic or foreign. Democracy can only thrive in a climate where freedom of information and freedom of expression are both upheld, in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, allowing everyone to express their views, regardless how critical they are towards the governments and those in power.
Democracy cannot be taken for granted – it needs to be actively nurtured and defended. Recent times have shown a resurgence of popular political engagement and increased turnout in elections, but as in many places around the world, democracy in the EU and its Member States is facing challenges: rising extremism and polarisation, as well as a perceived distance between people and their elected representatives (2). Our democratic systems and institutions have come increasingly under attack in recent years (3). The integrity of elections has come under threat, the environment in which journalists and civil society operate has deteriorated, and concerted efforts to spread false and misleading information and manipulate voters, including by foreign actors have been observed. The very freedoms we strive to uphold, like the freedom of expression, have been used in some cases to deceive and manipulate. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these challenges into relief: the exceptional emergency measures taken to address this unprecedented public health crisis have affected the political process and in some places sparked concerns about the impact on democracy (4).
This European Democracy Action Plan seeks to strengthen the resilience of EU democracies in the face of challenges, addressing the areas in which our systems and citizens are most vulnerable. This work has to be carried out at EU and national level in full respect of the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as in national and international human rights rules.
At the same time, the EU is not only concerned with protecting democracy within its borders, but as pressure is mounting on democracy, the rule of law and human rights globally, the EU is working actively to protect, inspire and support democracies around the world (5). The challenges relating to the exercise of democracy are global and the world’s democracies have a common interest in working together to address them. At EU level, this requires a coherent approach between internal and external actions. The way we nurture and bolster our democratic foundations in the Union and Member States has impact on the strength of our external action. With this action plan, the Commission is proposing a response centred around individual rights and freedoms, transparency and accountability which could also serve as an example of how to approach these global challenges to democracy and a basis to build partnership with like-minded democracies.
(1) Special Eurobarometer 479 on the Future of Europe (October-November 2018). With 34% of respondents, this comes ahead of its economic, industrial and trading power (31%) and the standard of living of EU citizens (25%).
(2) See for example The Global State of Democracy 2019 Report (2019) International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
(3) President von der Leyen’s Political Guidelines, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/betapolitical/files/political-guidelines-next-commission_en.pdf .
(4) Venice Commission (2020), Interim report on the measures taken in the EU Member States as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and their impact on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights (adopted on 8 October 2020).
(5) Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 (JOIN/2020/5 final, 25 March 2020), which reaffirms the EU’s commitment to promote and protect democracy worldwide.