Monday

25th Jan 2021

EU counter-propaganda 'harms' relations, Russia says

  • EU message to Ukraine still 'positive' despite Dutch clause (Photo: GeenPeil)

Russia has warned the EU against promoting itself in what it sees as its neighbourhood, amid final preparations for an EU summit with former Soviet states.

Andrey Kelin, the head of EU affairs in the Russian foreign ministry, delivered the message to Thomas Mayr-Harting, a senior diplomat in the EU foreign service, in two recent meetings in Brussels and in Moscow.

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  • EU should blacklist bogus Russian media, Kiev said

They discussed Ukraine on both occasions, with Kelin telling Mayr-Harting twice that "raising the budget of Stratcom East would harm relations between the EU and Russia", according to one EU diplomat briefed on their meetings.

Stratcom East is a team of 14 officials in Mayr-Harting's service tasked with debunking Russian propaganda and with promoting positive media coverage of the EU in the former Soviet region.

When Mayr-Harting's boss, Federica Mogherini, met EU foreign ministers last week, 17 of them urged her to give her so-called 'myth-busters' more "human and financial resources".

Their call came ahead of an EU summit with Armenia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in Brussels on Friday (24 November).

But Mogherini's draft declaration for the Eastern Partnership summit appeared to heed Russia's warning.

The text, seen by EUobserver, mentioned Stratcom just once. It said the unit would "support media plurality" and "improve … resilience against disinformation", but it said nothing about scaling-up its activities.

An EU official told press on Tuesday that Stratcom would focus on "explanatory work" about the EU instead of on debunking Russian propaganda.

"Primarily, its role is to explain precisely what the EU is doing in integration in general and more specifically in the framework of the Eastern Partnership," the official said.

But for Mykola Tochytskyi, Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, the Kremlin's warning should have been taken as sign of Stratcom's effectiveness and as an incentive do more.

"Russia's manipulations and 'fake news' are one of the main security threats for the EU and the Eastern Partnership region. If this was not the case, why would they care so much about Stratcom's budget?," he told EUobserver on Tuesday.

Practical steps

Tochytskyi said extra information on EU policies was "very important", but "further effort is also needed to counter Russian propaganda".

He proposed two "practical steps".

He said EU states should "limit or ban" the activities in their jurisdictions of Russian "propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik", as well as "hundreds or even thousands of other fake news outlets, such as the Luxembourg Herald, and fake social media accounts".

He said Stratcom should also "compile a list of such outlets that are used by Russia and its proxies".

Asked by EUobserver if Brussels could learn anything from Moscow on how to win people's hearts, he said: "I'm not sure that the EU could learn something positive from Russia - a country where political ratings are achieved by harsh Soviet-style propaganda, complete violation of human rights, and demonisation of Western values".

Friday's summit will be attended by the leaders of at least 20 EU states, but French president Emmanuel Macron will not go and German chancellor Angela Merkel has not confirmed either.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko will send his foreign minister instead.

The draft summit declaration said EU leaders "acknowledge the European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned".

EU message

But it said they do so only "in [the] context" of Dutch demands that association treaties with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, who want to join the EU, will not lead to membership, the right to work in Europe, major financial assistance, or security guarantees.

The EU official said the EU had to bow to Dutch concerns to "make it possible for all member states to ratify the association agreement with Ukraine" after Dutch people voted against the Ukraine treaty.

The non-binding referendum in 2016 was also a target of Russian disinformation attacks.

With France and Germany backing the Dutch position, the EU official said there was "no consensus within the EU at this stage to give Eastern Partners a membership perspective".

The official added that the Dutch clause in the EU summit text changed nothing.

"I don't see any change in our position [from previous Eastern Partnership declarations] of acknowledging aspirations and welcoming the choice, but not saying more," the official said.

Still positive?

Speaking amid the EU-Russia communications rivalry, the EU official said the summit statement was "in any case positive".

Harking back to the Kremlin warning, the official added that Friday's meeting was meant to be "non-confrontational".

"We do not force binary choices on our partners. We are not making them choose between us and others [Russia]," the official said.

But for Tochytskyi, the EU message to Chisinau, Kiev, and Tbilisi would be stronger if the Dutch caveat was taken out.

"We are still in negotiations with our partners on the draft declaration," he said.

He said that an EU decision, in December 2016, to take on board Dutch people's concerns, was designed to soothe tensions at the time and was not meant to be binding on EU foreign policy.

The EU decision said that the EU Council "takes note" of the Dutch referendum and that EU states took on board Dutch concerns "as their common understanding".

"There is really no need to reiterate the reference to the EU leaders' decision of December 2016 as it has played its role and has nothing to do with the Eastern Partnership initiative," Tochytskyi said.

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