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4th Dec 2021

MEP's disinformation report spotlights China's universities

  • Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete, presenting her draft report on tackling foreign interference (Photo: European Parliament)
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A few legislative measures cannot defend the EU from hostile foreign attacks - instead the bloc needs to build overall resilience against foreign threats, a key MEP tasked with pinpointing possible legislation against foreign interference has said.

Latvian MEP Sandra Kalniete on Tuesday (9 November) presented her draft report to the special committee in the European Parliament on foreign interference, which was set up last year to identify possible areas that could require EU legislation.

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"No legislative measure can be adopted quickly enough to respond to all technological developments in real time, it is like trying to use a race car to catch up a rocket ship," the centre-right MEP said.

Her 33-page draft report focuses on areas from media literacy, to critical infrastructure, to the role of the diaspora in foreign interference.

"Europe must be more ambitions, rather than narrowly reacting to threats from hostile actors in Beijing and Moscow," Kalniete said, pointing to the two main hostile actors.

"The EU should not shy way from speaking the language of power," she added.

The draft report suggest the EU Commission should set a mechanism to monitor loopholes in legislation that can be exploited by foreign powers.

It urges the commission to include a foreign information manipulation and interference assessment before putting forward new proposal.

Mandarin needed

The draft report also calls "urgently" for adequate capabilities at the EU foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), to address information manipulation by China, and highlights the need for Chinese speakers.

On critical infrastructure, the draft report said the EU and member states need "to provide financing alternatives to prevent large parts of their critical infrastructure from coming into the possession of third countries".

It points to the case of the port of Piraeus in Greece and Chinese investment in undersea cables in the Baltic. The report adds that media should also qualify as critical infrastructure.

The fraud report also suggests that the EU should tackle the issue of "elite capture", a method for foreign powers to use their national diasporas, and educational institutions to interfere.

Chinese universities in EU

The report condemns the decision by the Hungarian government to open a branch of China's Fudan University in Budapest while forcing the US-accredited program of the Central European University to relocate.

The draft is also concerned about the "increasing financial dependence of European universities on China", and calls on the commission and EU countries to ensure proper financing and transparency of financing.

The draft also suggests several action against online platforms.

The report calls for EU rules to limit the amount of data platforms can store about users and how long this data can be used, and to require platforms to regularly identify, assess and mitigate risks of information manipulation and interference.

Kalniete said the lawmakers should combat the lack of awareness in society and among policy makers in Europe about the severity of foreign interference.

"The situation is even worse than we expected, foreign actors are using online platforms, economic pressure, political parties - mostly from the far-right - within the EU to destabilise democracy and stability," said Austrian centre-left MEP Andreas Schieder, who also worked on the report.

The draft report points out that there is evidence of "Russian interference and online information manipulation in many liberal democracies" including the UK's Brexit referendum, and the French and US presidential elections.

The report also said that Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes have funnelled "more than $300m [€259m] into 33 countries to interfere in democratic processes, and this trend is clearly accelerating".

Centre-left French MEP Raphaël Glucksman, the chairman of the committee, said that the EU must raise the cost of actors interfering in Europe's affairs.

"As we can see today the border on Poland, a hostile regime like Lukashenko tyranny has launched a hybrid warfare against our democracy," he said.

"The threat will only grow in the years to come, we have to be ready to confront them together," he added.

The draft report will be voted on by the committee in January, and the plenary will vote on the report next March.

EU needs to step up espionage defences, experts warn

Robert Dover from the University of Hull said intelligence work nowadays is mostly data warehousing to "improve the behavioural models of how state and individuals will act and behave" - and how to encounter that.

EU pitches infrastructure investment plan to rival China

Ursula von der Leyen launched a global investment operation directed at infrastructure and transport. Its aim is to compete with the China's Belt and Road. "We want to create links and not dependencies," she said.

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