Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

Study shows how authoritarian regimes gain EU leverage

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin at the wedding of then Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl (left) in 2018. The EU is too complex for straightforward Kremlin influence (Photo: kremlin.ru)

National delegations from Germany, France, UK, Ireland, Greece, Italy and Cyprus in the European Parliament are more prone to supporting authoritarian powers due to having large populist right-wing and left-wing parties domestically, according to new research.

MEPs from central and eastern Europe are more likely to be tough on authoritarian powers, particularly Russia, than the average EU country, the study on authoritarian influence in the EU done by the Budapest-based Political Capital think tank found.

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The study highlighted Spain's Podemos, the Portuguese Communist Party, and the Czech Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which are all either members of the ruling government coalition or support a government from the outside, as very supportive of authoritarians.

"They can be essential pathways for authoritarian regimes to influence European policies," the study, published on Thursday (3 September) warned.

Germany's AfD, France's National Rally, Italy's League, the UK's Brexit Party, and Greece's Golden Dawn had been also among supporters of authoritarian powers, while parties from Romania, Luxembourg, Poland, Lithuania and Croatia are the most "hawkish" on the topic.

The study found that MEPs critical of authoritarian regimes, including Russia, have a secure majority in the European Parliament, which only comes under threat when mainstream political groups are divided.

Fringe parliamentary groups, such as the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) and the far-left European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) are the most supportive of authoritarian regimes - and so are most of the non-attached MEPs.

Together, they represent a 20-percent minority of MEPs - which is not enough to block initiatives if there is consensus among the big parties.

The study, however, warned that this could change in the wake of the pandemic should these parties gain better elections results.

The largest mainstream parliamentary groups, the centre-right European People's Party, the liberal Renew Europe, and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, are generally highly-critical of autocratic practices.

Support for Russia in the EU stems from a "genuine admiration for Russian policies built on alleged national sovereignty and pride", and the influence of Russian propaganda, plus potential support from the Kremlin. While China's influence has been mainly based on its vast economic resources, the study says.

Council access

The study focused on the influence of authoritarian regimes, mainly China and Russia, in the European Parliament, partly because the deliberations in the council of member states - which is mostly in charge of the EU's foreign policy decisions - are done behind closed doors making it more difficult to measure.

Researchers examined some 19 votes in the parliament since new MEPs took their seats after last year's European elections - which thus still included the UK MEPs who later left due to Brexit.

These 19 included resolutions on Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Russia's foreign agents law, on foreign electoral interference, elections in Bolivia, human rights violations against Uyghurs in China, crackdown on protests in Iran, EU foreign policy and defence strategy.

Ultimately, authoritarian pressure within the EU is "traditionally best-applied through member states via bilateral connections" and less through the union itself, the study found.

In foreign policy decisions unanimity is required in the council, meaning that one single member state can block a proposal.

But influencing decisions is still difficult there, the study concluded, because of the EU's "normative pressure" on member states.

The relative "success" of influencing EU policy through the council is part of the reason why such regimes, particularly Russia, seek to interfere with elections throughout Europe, the study says.

Authoritarian regimes also generally find the EU's complicated bureaucracy hard to access and influence.

"Compared to nation states, the EU as an institutional matrix is much more difficult to manipulate from the outside, because it is, so to speak, all over the place, […] the process is so diffused," Slovak liberal MEP Michal Simecka said at a discussion about the study.

The 'EU's conscience'?

Presenting the study, Peter Kreko, Political Capital's director, called the Brussels and Strasbourg-based parliament the "EU's conscience" and called for a bigger role for the assembly in the bloc's foreign policy, arguing it would make the EU's foreign policy more "value-driven and democratic.

Kreko also called for qualified majority decisions in the council on foreign affairs topics - an issue that strongly divides member states.

The study also argues that making the EU's rotating presidencies longer than six months could help make the foreign policy agenda of the EU more ambitious.

To push back authoritarian influence in the EU, the study argues for a more robust investment-screening program, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

It also calls for an improved vetting of MEPs, tougher lobbying rules, and better cybersecurity protection of the EU institutions.

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