16th Apr 2024

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)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"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.

EU Ombudsman: Missing texts with Pfizer CEO are 'wake-up call'

The EU Ombudsman said missing texts between European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the boss of Pfizer are a "wake-up call" for all institutions about how they should handle work-related instant messages in the digital era.

MEPs sue EU commission for Covid contract transparency

Five European lawmakers from the Greens lodged a lawsuit against the European Commission for not fully disclosing its Covid vaccine contracts with the pharmaceutical industry. The commission says it is in "the business of respecting contracts."

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.


Despite Beijing's pleas, now is not time to lift China sanctions

As Beijing cajoles Europe back to "business as usual", even lifting mutual sanctions, European governments shouldn't waver in their recent resolve to hold Beijing accountable for its deepening human rights abuses, writes the China director of Human Rights Watch.


Private fears of fairtrade activist for EU election campaign

I am not sleeping well, tossing and turning at night because I am obsessed about the EU election campaign, worried by geopolitical tensions, a far-right next parliament, and a backlash against the Green Deal, writes Sophie Aujean of Fairtrade International.

Latest News

  1. EU puts Sudan war and famine-risk back in spotlight
  2. EU to blacklist Israeli settlers, after new sanctions on Hamas
  3. Private fears of fairtrade activist for EU election campaign
  4. Brussels venue ditches far-right conference after public pressure
  5. How German police pulled the plug on a Gaza conference
  6. EU special summit, MEPs prep work, social agenda This WEEK
  7. EU leaders condemn Iran, urge Israeli restraint
  8. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us