25th Sep 2023


Germany and Poland clash on ad targeting for EU elections

  • Facebook logo - EU voters at risk of "dark patterns" and "foreign interference" (Photo: EDJN)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Next EU election due in second week of June 2024 (Photo: secretlondon123)

But if Poland has its way then a new EU law on political ads 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-doors 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, Bosnia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

Microstates entitled to officially use the euro are Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City State.

But any parties under 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.

Metsola letter

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.

This article was amended shortly after publication to add Bosnia as an EU candidate country.


Russia sanctions and EU elections on top This WEEK

The parliament's constitutional affairs committee is set to vote on a draft proposal on the number of seats in the European Parliament, and their distribution among EU countries, ahead of the 2024 elections.


What even is economic resilience — and does it matter?

GDP is an unreliable indicator of economies' capacity to thrive in times of change. And the over-reliance on GDP won't get our economies on track to meet environmental and social goals when crises hit.

Supported by

Latest News

  1. Women at risk from shoddy EU laws on domestic workers
  2. EU poised to agree on weakened emission rules
  3. China trade tension and migration deal This WEEK
  4. Europe's energy strategy: A tale of competing priorities
  5. Why Greek state workers are protesting new labour law
  6. Gloves off, as Polish ruling party fights for power
  7. Here's the headline of every op-ed imploring something to stop
  8. Report: Tax richest 0.5%, raise €213bn for EU coffers

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  2. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  3. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  4. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch
  6. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us