EU to take a hard look at foreign interference in its democracy

EU ministers and European Parliament members are stepping up coordinated EU action to counteract foreign interference, with most fingers pointing to Moscow and Beijing.

In a debate on Tuesday (25 January), EU affairs ministers expressed concerns about the new legislative package on democracy and integrity of elections that was put forward by the European Commission last autumn, and its capacity to regulate foreign interference.

EU countries’ representatives discussed the proposal launched by the European Commission last November, that brought new rules to regulate political advertising and funding to EU political parties.

EU Commission presents new rules for political ads

The European Commission launched a proposal to regulate political advertising, introducing transparency obligations for marketers and strict limits to the use of sensitive personal information.

The proposal was published on Thursday (25 November) to protect the electoral process and democratic debate …

One of the aims of the legislative package is to increase transparency on the sources of funding and facilitate interactions with national and international parties and member organisations.

Cutting foreign funding? 

The new rules would allow European parties to receive up to 10% of their funding from parties and organisations which are located outside the EU, but in the Council of Europe, the pan-European rights organisation.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said such rules could help political parties continue to develop and strengthen relations with affiliated foundations in countries such as Norway, the UK and Switzerland.

However, EU member states pointed to the potential influence of other nations, such as Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are part of the Council of Europe. 

“I think that we are making a mistake. We should limit the financing only to European citizens,” said Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Greek alternate foreign affairs minister.

Only Slovakian representative Martin Klus shared a contrasting view.  

“It could be better to have donations from Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan or whatever in a controlled fashion rather than lose control entirely,” which could lead to “financing the wrong people” and to strengthening the far-right in Europe, he said. 

Moreover, some countries, like Slovenia and Slovakia, said they already have legal measures prohibiting funding or donations from abroad, and many called for a balance between the new EU rules and national sovereignty.

Too fast or not fast enough

A number of EU countries also called for more time to review the overall proposal, without “sacrificing content for speed.” 

The Commission’s aim is to put the new rules in place by spring 2023, one year before the next European Parliament elections.

However, MEPs say that no matter how fast the changes are, they might not be fast enough.

“No legislative measures can be adopted quickly enough to respond to all technological developments in real time,” MEP Sandra Kalniete earlier told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Kalniete was leading an 18-month inquiry of a special European Parliament committee looking into foreign interference in all democratic processes in the EU.

MEPs supported the idea of banning foreign political donations throughout the bloc in the committee’s final report adopted on Tuesday, which should go up for the green light of the plenary in March.

According to Kalniete, “we must not deny reality: the EU has been increasingly exposed to and contaminated by foreign interference.”

For the Latvian lawmaker, moves to counter this must go beyond “narrowly reacting” to attempts by Moscow and Beijing to interfere in EU affairs, and rather concentrate on closing legal loopholes, holding online platforms to account, and bolstering societal strength through “the radical improvement of media literacy”. 

Even though both media literacy and election rules are the prerogative of EU countries, Kalniete said Brussels should help set common guidelines.

She also hopes that the report will put the issue of foreign interference higher on the agenda “because neither the majority of population nor policy makers and decision takers are really aware about the level of the threat”.

The Christian Democrat MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP) also pointed out that the document had “sensitive and crucial issues”.

For instance, the document bashes “elite capture”, the practice of hiring former high-level European politicians and civil servants by foreign state companies. 

“Their knowledge, often based on confidential information and contacts, is then used at the expense of the EU and its Member States’ strategic interests,” the MEPs say.

The document also names names, accusing former heads of governments from Germany, France, Finland of peddling the interests of Russia and China.

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“Without being honest and clear about our own and practices and values we’ll never be able to tackle the foreign interference at its core”, Kalniete said. 

Sanctions, Sanctions, Sanctions

The EP politicians are now calling for a number of new sanctions regimes to be set up, following the footsteps of the EU’s new framework targeting human rights abusers, in place since December 2020. 

The lawmakers now called on the EU executive to come forward with legislation “to adopt a new thematic sanctions regime to address serious acts of corruption” as well as “take further measures against foreign interference […] including in the form of setting up a sanctions regime”. 

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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