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20th May 2022

Call for sanctions on foreign meddling and disinformation

  • Ukrainian flags were on display in Strasbourg at the European Parliament for the plenary session (Photo: European Parliament)
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European Parliament lawmakers are calling for a sanctions regime to tackle meddling by foreign powers after years of "naivety" and "negligence" that had made the EU vulnerable to attacks.

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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  • MEP Sandra Kalniete said the EU should "turn off the flow of the gas and oil golden river" (Photo: European Parliament)

Among senior ex-politicians cited by name in the report are former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen, who both joined Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom.

The report also cites former Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl appointed board member of Rosneft, a state-controlled oil company, and former French premier François Fillon appointed to the board of Zaroubejneft, another Russian oil company as examples of the problem.

"For decades, we have watched former high-ranking European officials and politicians take up prominent positions in Russia energy companies, while we were channelling hundreds of millions into Putin's coffers, and providing safe haven for his cronies and his oligarchs," said Latvian centre-right MEP Sandra Kalniete, who oversaw the report.

"We, with our euros, have effectively built and financed Putin's war machine, which is now being used to slaughter innocent Ukrainians," she said.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said during the parliament debate that the EU Commission will soon propose a new mechanism that will allow the EU to sanction disinformation actors, but gave no further details.

"For years [Russian president Vladimir] Putin's regime saw itself as being at war with the EU, but the European leadership has refused to see it," he said, adding that this insufficient defence was an "invitation" for attacks.

The report said the attempts at public propaganda and manipulation overwhelmingly came from Russia and China.

Those countries had targeted the "democratic functioning" of the EU and its member states - mainly by polarising public debate, promoting hate speech, distorting the integrity of elections and sowing distrust in institutions.

Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes had funnelled more than €275m into 33 countries to interfere in democratic processes over the last decade, the report said.

The lawmakers' report also calls on the commission and EU governments to support independent media, and make online platforms invest in language skills to be able to act against illegal content.

Another suggestion is for EU institutions and national governments to provide financial alternatives to China's direct investment which is often used as a "geopolitical tool."

EU and member state officials have been "overwhelmingly" unaware of the severity of the threat posed by foreign autocratic regimes, in particular Russia and China, the report says.

"The idea was to put an end to the naivety, the culpable negligence of the European leadership," said French lawmaker Raphaël Glucksmann, who has led the special committee.

Turning to the EU's decision to ban Russian state-controlled media outlets from broadcasting in the bloc, Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief brushed off critics who argued that the EU is threatening freedom of information

"They are not independent media, they are assets, weapons in the Kremlin's manipulation ecosystem," Borrell told lawmakers, referring to Sputnik and RT/Russia Today.

"We are not trying to decide what is true and what is false. I am not the minister of the truth," Borrell said.

"If the information is bad, democracy is bad," Borrell argued. "If the information is systematically contaminated by lies and twisted, citizens can't have a clear understanding of reality and their political judgement is similarly twisted," he said.

French MEP Glucksmann sought to reinforce that line argument.

"If people want to believe that earth is flat, it is their constitutional right," Glucksmann said.

"But if you have a foreign regime that is actually launching a campaign, using propaganda tools to make millions of Europeans believe that the earth is flat, then that is becoming our problem," he added.

Even so the Kremlin continues to use other tools, such as bot and troll armies, and domestic politicians and local elites in member states, to drive its narrative, said Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, while the Russian disinformation infrastructure has been weakened due to the EU bans.

Krékó said that there should be a mechanism monitoring the narrative in member states, citing the example of Hungary, where state-financed media continues to push the Russian narrative on the war, blaming Ukraine for the conflict.

"There will not be a 180 degree-turn," he said, referring to the limited impact of the ban on the Russian outlets. "As the war becomes normalised, there will be more and more calls for some sort of coexisting with Russia," Krékó said.

Interview

EU struggles to fight disinformation within

The draft report on fighting foreign interference in the EU will be voted by the parliament plenary in March. The recommendations to the EU Commission include a mandatory code of conduct for digital platforms, and closing loopholes on party financing.

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