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9th Dec 2022

China pressured EU on coronavirus report, Borrell admits

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (c) (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

China did try to pressure the EU into diluting a report on coronavirus disinformation, the EU's top diplomat has admitted.

But this was just normal diplomacy, he added, while attacking an EU whistleblower.

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"China expressed its concern when they knew what the document contained and they did this through diplomatic channels," Borrell told MEPs in a videoconference on Thursday (30 April).

"Diplomatic démarches [complaints] can be accompanied by a range of incentives and disincentives, which don't even need to be explicitly mentioned," he added, in a hint of what the Chinese threatened.

"But everybody is doing this, including ourselves, and our closest partners," the former Spanish foreign minister also said.

The controversy concerned two EU foreign service reports on Chinese and Russian coronavirus information attacks.

The first one - an internal, 25-page EU text called an Information Environment Assessment (IEA) - was circulated among EU diplomats on 20 April and leaked to the Politico news website and, later, EUobserver.

The second text - a much shorter one called a "special report" - was published on the EU foreign service website on 24 April.

The second report mentioned China 15 times and accused it of "conspiracy narratives and disinformation".

But it used milder language than the IEA paper and omitted some examples, notably one about an ugly row between France and China on Chinese propaganda.

And in the meantime, US newspaper the New York Times obtained copies of internal EU emails saying Chinese pressure had diluted the public version of the EU text.

"The Chinese are already threatening with reactions if the [IEA] report comes out," Lutz Güllner, an EU official, said in one email the day after the Politico leak.

The EU was "self-censoring to appease the Chinese Communist Party," Monika Richter, an EU diplomat, said in another email.

For his part, Borrell also said, on Thursday, it was normal practice for diplomatic services to have internal reports that differed from public ones.

"These are two different products for two different audiences ... because we are dealing with very sensitive issues", he said.

But he denied that Chinese pressure had caused his personnel to water down accusations.

"We haven't bowed to anyone," Borrell said.

"There was no altering of our findings, no matter how uncomfortable they might be ... just read the [public] report," he said.

The public report omitted the Chinese-French row only because EU sub-editors ultimately deemed it an example of Chinese "bullying" not "disinformation," he added.

And he, personally, had no knowledge of the whole controversy until staff alerted him to it on 24 April, when he was having a day off for his wedding anniversary, Borrell said.

Shooting the messager

The foreign service chief voiced anger at those who leaked the IEA and internal emails to press.

Some MEPs referred to the leakers as ethical "whistleblowers".

But Borrell said: "It's clear we can't work on the basis of these kinds of lies, which are very damaging for our work".

The emails alleging EU "self-censorship" were "written with the aim of being leaked", he said.

"This is very serious," he added.

Borrell got broad support from senior MEPs in Thursday's video-meeting.

"I believe you're an honourable man and I accept your explanation," Radek Sikorski, a Polish former foreign minister, said.

"I was also in the diplomatic service for years and it's perfectly normal," Nathalie Loiseau, a French former EU affairs minister, added.

"It's clear the substance of the report hasn't changed," Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green MEP, also said.

"I would be happy if all our [EU] leaders used the same kind of language," as the still-harsh China criticism in the EU's public text, Bütikofer added.

Speaking about Russian and Chinese propaganda more broadly, Borrell said on Thursday there was "an infodemic accompanying the pandemic".

His service had recorded 400 fake news items on the virus in recent weeks, he said.

Some of the Russian ones peddled fake cures which were "putting people's lives at risk", he added.

But the EU's debunking website had had an 800 percent increase in traffic since the pandemic began, with 10,000 readers a day, Borrell said, indicating the effectiveness of its work.

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