Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Mogherini seeks more funds to counter Russian propaganda

  • Mogherini said East and Western Balkans communication cells were too small for their workload (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

An EU request for additional funds to counter Russian propaganda is unlikely to lead to much, diplomats have said.

The scepticism immediately followed EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini's proposal for "additional resources" for her Stratcom counter-propaganda unit at a foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Monday (13 November).

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  • Spain has "proof" of Catalonia meddling from "Russian territory" (Photo: Matthias Oesterle/ZUMA Wire/dpa)

She said the money would primarily be spent on her Western Balkans Stratcom cell and on communicating the EU's "positive agenda" more broadly.

It was "too early to assess" the extent of Russia's influence operations in the Western Balkans, she added, but she said "this is one of the files we will work on the most".

She said the EU had a "powerful" policy to promote in the region - to say that "the future of the region is in the EU" and that Europe "is consistent and coherent" on its enlargement promise.

The EU foreign service contains 14 seconded diplomats and officials tasked with pushing back against Russian disinformation in eastern Europe, two staff on the Western Balkans, and six people working on Islamist radicalisation.

They do not have their own budget to buy tools such as media and big data analysis products.

The temporary unit also has no institutional basis and risks being disbanded at any time.

Mogherini's request for extra money, to be filed to EU finance ministers in early 2018, comes after they rejected a similar proposal last year.

Spanish proof

This time around, it has the open backing of nine member states - Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

Spain joined the group after Russia allegedly meddled in the Catalan crisis.

Its foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said in Brussels on Monday his services "have proof" that false Russian social media accounts had tried to foment Catalan separatism.

Spain's defence minister, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, said: "We know … that much of this came from Russian territory".

The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said Poland would lend Stratcom the use of its new, 1,000-man strong military cyber squad.

The British prime minister, Theresa May, speaking later the same day at an event in London, also pledged "to counter Russian activity" and to "work with our [EU] allies to do likewise".

Referring to Russian information attacks on the UK, US, France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands as well as Spain, she said "Russian agencies have been attempting to interfere with western politics".

"It [Russia] is seeking to weaponise information, deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories ... in an attempt to sow discord in the West," she said.

Scepticism

Mogherini's latest financial request risks amounting to little despite the appeals, however.

An EU diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told EUobserver that 17 member states who spoke out on Russia at Monday's meeting "generally concurred that strategic communications is very important" and "agreed on the need for more resources, human and financial".

The hawkish group is said to include the Netherlands and Estonia.

But commenting on the initial reaction in the room on Monday, Poland's Waszczykowski was less than optimistic.

"It seems today that some member states don't see the Russian threat and want to focus on other areas", he said.

A second EU diplomat told EUobserver that Mogherini, an Italian politician, was uninterested in Stratcom and had filed the proposal just to get the hawkish EU states off her back.

"She must be perfectly aware that EU states would never agree to suddenly pay an extra bill for this," he said.

"Their legitimate argument would be that she already has huge financial resources for communication at her disposal," he added.

He noted that EU institutions were spending €20 million on a communications project in north Africa and the Middle East called the Open Neighbourhood Programme.

"If she was serious about it [Stratcom], she could have easily mobilised sufficient funds within her own institutions," he said.

A third EU diplomat said there was a "very good chance" that EU capitals would reject extra money for Stratcom.

"She [Mogherini] can still hope that the finance ministers will kill any ideas that this issue would actually deserve more resources", the diplomat said.

He said those member states "who understand the gravity of the situation" had to "start becoming vocal about this issue" in order to prompt EU action.

He added that they ought to "attack" the prevailing attitude in EU institutions, which amounted to "let's not make Sergei [Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister] angry".

"I'm afraid they don't have the courage to do that," he said.

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