Next summer’s EU elections could see voters targeted by very personal ads and EU parties more free to take foreign money, as talks on new laws build momentum.
The dangers of behavioural advertising in politics came out during the 2016 US elections when British firm Cambridge Analytica illegally used Facebook data to seduce people into voting for ex-president Donald Trump.
But if Poland has its way then a new EU law on political advertising will not include extra safeguards on use of sensitive information by spin-doctors.
“The EP [EU Parliament] proposes a complete ban on the use of sensitive data for targeting and political advertising delivery techniques … We consider them too restrictive,” Polish diplomats said in February, according to an internal EU Council memo on the behind-closed-door negotiations, seen by EUobserver.
Sensitive data, according to existing EU law, covers areas such as voters’ ethnic origins, religious beliefs, trade-union membership, medical health, and details of their “sex life or sexual orientation”.
The next round of talks with the EP, the EU Commission, and EU capitals — called “trilogues” in Brussels jargon — will take place on 30 March.
The aim is to have new EU rules enforced at national level in time for the EP vote, due in the second week of June 2024.
Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice, known for aggressive propaganda, is also fighting national elections in autumn and might not want its hands tied by incoming EU legislation.
Finland said in the EU memo: “The proposal for a full ban on data belonging to special categories of personal data […] goes beyond what is necessary and proportionate”, so long as there was “sufficient transparency and explicit consent given by the person”.
But Germany is doubling down on privacy. “We advocate for a complete ban on targeting using sensitive personal data”, it said.
Austria said former EU court rulings suggest even voters’ “sex, age, addresses” shouldn’t be used “for the purpose of targeting or amplifying in the context of political advertising”.
It warned of the dangers of “dark patterns” — software that tricks users into making choices they don’t understand, for instance on data consent.
“The negative effects of the use of ‘dark patterns’ on online platforms and services are amplified exponentially when dark patterns are used for the purpose of political analysis, as it puts into question the freedom of democratic choices,” it said.
Latvia also warned that targeted ads can create information-ghettos, in which “the person is not in position to form her opinion independently and objectively where presented only with the facts which corresponds to her already formed views”.
Follow the money
The second EU election law concerns rules for EU-level political parties and foundations (EPPFs), such as the liberal Alde or far-right Identity and Democracy Party.
The EP wants to give them a free hand to take donations from associated parties in the European neighbourhood and new powers to campaign in national referendums on issues that concern the EU.
Earlier trilogues ran-aground at the end of 2022, but EU ambassadors will reopen the dossier on Wednesday (8 March).
There is little chance EU capitals will give in on referendum perks, which cross red lines on sovereignty.
The Swedish EU presidency has also said “in order to mitigate the risk of foreign interference, the presidency proposes … not to allow any funding from non-EU parties”, according to a second Council memo, also seen by this website.
But it proposed a new compromise in which kosher non-EU parties can become EPPF members, with seats on panels and advisory roles.
This would be limited to parties in “an EFTA country, in a former EU member state, in a candidate country, or in a country entitled to use the euro as official currency,” Sweden has proposed.
EFTA is the European Free Trade Association and includes Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.
Current EU candidate countries are Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Microstates entitled to officially use the euro are Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City State.
But any parties targeted by EU sanctions would be excluded and there would be “regular monitoring of the respect of EU values”, Sweden has suggested.
It remains to be seen if either bill is agreed in time to bring what the Council memo called “clear and predictable rules” for all in time for next summer, or if Europe will remain stuck with its current patchwork of national-level laws.
The efforts to reform the system come amid flagging turnout in EU votes, posing other questions on democratic legitimacy.
Overall turnout picked up in 2019 to 50.56 percent, but was below half in 15 countries and hit rock-bottom in Slovakia on 22.74 percent.
For her part, EP president Roberta Metsola wrote to the EU Council on 28 February asking to move the 2024 date from June to 23-26 May instead.
This would help get “better turnout”, especially in Nordic states, where summer holidays start early, an EP spokesman told EUobserver.
But it’s unlikely to fly, as the Council wants to fix the date this week, and there’s little time to get an EU-27 consensus on Metsola’s proposal, given also the patchwork of national holidays and potential calendar preferences across the continent.