EU willing to increase resources to counter Russian interference

Russia-backed RT and Sputnik are seen as two of the major actors in Moscow's anti-EU propaganda machine. [Flickr]

Following developments in Eastern Europe and Catalonia, EU foreign affairs ministers pledged more resources to fight against foreign interference in Europe, in particular coming from Russian actors.

“I asked the ministers to support my request to increase the human and financial resources” to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad, said Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

“I received the political support by the ministers on this. Now we will check if the finance ministers will follow the indications of the foreign affairs ministers in the coming weeks,” she told reporters after the Council meeting.

Propaganda and disinformation activities generated and multiplied by foreign actors based in Russia have become a concern, primarily in Ukraine and eastern EU member states.

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But following a swathe of fake news stories during the French elections and, more recently, during the Catalan crisis, ministers agreed that more needs to be done to counter this new type of threat aimied at destabilising the bloc.

After referring to the Catalan example, Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Alfonso Dastis called on his colleagues to “take strategic communications seriously”. It was the first time the Spanish government raised the Catalan crisis during an official meeting with its European partners.

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Asked about Russian meddling in Catalonia, Mogherini declined to comment. She did not give details about how much resources will be allocated to the initiative and the calendar for implementation.

But nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the three geographical task forces dedicated to the strategic communications, a national official said.

The change of tone was noted by Mogherini who recalled that the European Commission already proposed increasing EU resources to tackle this threat. But the proposal was blocked by the Council a few months ago.

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The ministers’ green light followed the demand made by the European Parliament. In its position to negotiate next year’s draft budget, the EU assembly requested “to step up funding to counter disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks” and also to promote an “objective” imagine of the EU in its neighbourhood and the Western Balkans.

The pledge to increase the EU’s counter-propaganda efforts came as the European Commission launched a public consultation to scope measures against “fake news” and a plan to set up an expert group on this issue.

The EU executive plans to propose an EU strategy to combat the spreading of fake news in September 2018.

Mogherini and ministers including Dastis stressed that EU efforts should aim both at countering disinformation campaigns and “fake news” but also to help spread European values.

Communicating “effectively and correctively the EU’s positive agenda” is “even the most important part”, Mogherini said.

Dastis said some players were using different media, and aimed at “weakening the EU or destabilise the member states”.

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The Spanish minister explained that he had no evidence that the Russian government sponsored the spreading of false news but said that the activities and traffic was driven by actors based on Russian territory.

The role of Julian Assange

His comments came after El Pais reported that the Russian-backed RT and Moscow allies stepped up their disinformation campaign in the run-up to the illegal referendum held in Catalonia on 1 October.

El Pais reported yesterday (13 November) that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange met in London with pro-independence activist Oriol Soler on 9 November in Ecuador’s embassy in London where Assange is currently staying.

Asked about the meeting, Dastis said early in the morning that there are “many indications” that Assange and other people tried to “interfere and manipulate” during the Catalan crisis.

After the Council session, he said that the three-hour long meeting in London suggested that the two men had discussed Catalonia’s unilateral break-up.

In an interview with German daily Handelsblatt, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy commented that most of the profiles spreading false news on Twitter related to Catalonia were fake. Half of them were registered in Russia, and 30% in Venezuela. Only 3% of them were real accounts.

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During the Council debate, some ministers expressed their frustration over the unbalanced fight between the high numbers of Russian-backed actors and the EU’s small teams.

The EU’s first and largest task force set up a couple of years ago focuses on the eastern front and employs around 15 people. The other two units, focusing on the Western Balkans and the Arab speaking world, are much smaller.

Mogherini explained that the unit working on the Eastern neighbourhood is “well-established and working at full rhythm”, although she said more resources were needed.

But she emphasised the need to beef up the more recent task forces working on the Western Balkans and the southern neighbourhood.