28th May 2023

Russia and China weaponised pandemic to sow distrust, MEPs hear

  • Strict measures during Covid-19 were unpopular. Foreign powers reinforced doubts about institutions and the political elite through their disinformation campaigns (Photo: Rebecca Ann Hughes)
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Foreign regimes used the Covid-19 pandemic to undermine EU democracy, experts told a European Parliament special committee focusing on the pandemic and its consequences.

"The pandemic was a key moment in this destabilisation effort," French centre-left MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, who heads the special committee on foreign interference, said.

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"Our democracies were shaken, we were facing an event unprecedented, not knowing really how to tackle it, it was perfect ground for destabilisation campaigns," he said.

"We are not dealing with just fake news or false information. We are dealing with strategies coming from political entities, foreign regimes, that aim at destabilising our democracies, and undermining our institutions," Glucksmann argued, pointing to Russia and China.

Glucksmann told his peers that the issue for the legislators is not simply that some people think that vaccines give a 5G boost in their arms — a common conspiracy theory among anti-vaccine activists.

It is when foreign powers launch disinformation campaigns to make millions believe that the vaccines will give 5G in their arms that it becomes the legislators' problem, he argued.

Glucksmann said the issue goes beyond the left-right-centre political groups, it threatens the framework where political groups can compete and debate ideas.

"We are part of a hybrid warfare and that we are under attack," he said.

Edward Lucas, journalist and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, an expert on Russia and eastern Europe, told MEPs not to be naive.

"I still worry that many of us live in a post-1990 la-la-land, where we think that everything can be solved by dialogue," he said.

"That's not the case," Lucas argued, saying that countries are ready to weaponise the pandemic which cost lives.

"We face a serious threat," he emphasised.

Lucas argued that relying only on market competition in journalism can lead to becoming a tool in wealthy countries' propaganda ambitions.

"If you allow commercial pressure alone to dictate the information flows, you're effectively selling political decision-making to the highest bidder," he warned MEPs.

Lucas argued that journalists also have a responsibility, as the concept of fairness can lead to "lazy moral equivalence".

Quoting two contradicting opinions and leaving it up to the audience to make up their mind is not what journalists should do, they should dig deeper, he argued.

During the pandemic, Russia and China tried to sow public distrust and sell the idea that an authoritarian country responds much better to a crisis than a democracy does, Lucas said.

Pfizer no-show

The parliament's Covid-19 committee is aiming to conclude its findings before the summer.

The committee, in a letter to European Parliament president Roberta Metsola, asked for the suspension and withdrawal of the long-term access badges of officials from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which produced the first Covid-19 vaccine with the German BioNTech firm.

"This is the response the committee deemed necessary to Pfizer CEO Dr [Albert] Bourla rejecting to honour two consecutive invitation of participation to the Covid committee meeting," Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, chair of the committee, said.

The MEPs also want to hear from EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen, in a closed session, about the joint vaccine procurement process, and in a letter urged Metsola to invite the commission chief.

One of the issues that would come into focus is von der Leyen's controversial and undisclosed text messages with the Pfizer CEO.

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Call for sanctions on foreign meddling and disinformation

The draft report, from a special committee on foreign interference and disinformation, also calls for the EU-wide ban on foreign funding for European political parties — and legislation to make it harder for foreign regimes to recruit former top politicians.


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