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Europe must act to fight the creeping influence of authoritarian regimes in its democracies ǀ View

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The European Commission and High Representative (HR/VP) Federica Mogherini announced on 14 June that the EU experienced “continued and sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences” in the European Parliament elections last month. This comes as no surprise to us. Authoritarian regimes are targeting European democracies.

Using tools as varied as cyber attacks, malign finance and information operations, Russian government-linked actors have interfered in the Brexit campaign, the French presidential election, the Catalonia independence referendum and the North Macedonia name change referendum, to name a few. European democracies have mobilised to confront this challenge, but more action is needed – and fast – to better defend democracy against authoritarian interference.

Interference goes beyond elections. Economic investments by companies linked to authoritarian states can limit policy choices in EU member states.
Toomas Ilves and Laura Rosenberger
Alliance for Securing Democracy

Almost all EU member states have in the past few years been victims of either Fancy Bear (also known as APT 28) or Cozy Bear (APT 29) Russian hackers, or the so-called “Internet Research Agency” based in St Petersburg. Parliaments, ministries, think tanks, NGOs, a presidential campaign and even the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have all fallen victim. Anti-vaccination propaganda has been spread in a number of countries by Russian trolls.

This challenge impacts all of Europe, yet many of the serious efforts to counter these attacks have been pursued at the individual member state level. Europe is concerned about its security - even created the Permanent Structured Co-operation for European defense, or PESCO - and is faced with genuine, ongoing campaigns and efforts, yet the threat of authoritarian interference lacks a Europe-wide response and coordination that would strengthen deterrence and build societal resilience.

Elections are a prime target for external interference, but Europe should not be lulled into a false sense of security now that the European Parliament elections are over. The infamous Russian disinformation campaign about a German girl allegedly sexually assaulted by a migrant was designed to amplify polarisation about migration in Germany. That campaign may have had electoral ramifications, but its broader objective was to sustain divisions in German society over the long-term, as it has sought to do in countries across the EU. Russia is not the only nation-state seeking to undermine democracy either. The Chinese government has developed technological tools to make the world more conducive to authoritarianism and is exporting that model abroad, including to Europe.

Some European political leaders are even courting authoritarian actors’ support. Recent reports on former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache attempting to trade government contracts for campaign support detail his how-to guide; build a relationship with a purported niece of a Russian oligarch, suggest she purchase a media outlet, request she improve press coverage for friendly political parties, and then, as a reward, offer lucrative government contracts in a different sector, such as construction.

Unfortunately, European member states have limited protections for interference in their political systems, and the protections that do exist could be easily skirted. The UK’s Electoral Commission is investigating online donations to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to see if foreign supporters funnelled significant donations in small amounts during the European Parliament election campaign. How easy it may have been to evade election laws should compel all Europeans to assess and address the existing gaps, so this investigation is good news.

Interference goes beyond elections. Economic investments by companies linked to authoritarian states can limit policy choices in EU member states. In Germany, for example, Chinese acquisitions in the robotics sector have prompted Berlin to revise and tighten its national investment screening rules. Other European states also need to adopt robust investment screening mechanisms. Currently, only half of the EU member states have some form of investment screening legislation in place. The recent steps toward an EU-wide Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) screening process is an encouraging approach to tackle this vulnerability.

Governments cannot counter asymmetric threats alone and should work with citizens to increase their resiliency towards disinformation, cyber attacks and other types of authoritarian interference. Europeans have good examples to build on, especially on countering disinformation. The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency exposed Russian disinformation prior to the 2018 Swedish parliamentary elections and educated all citizens about the risks of disinformation in a society-wide booklet. In Estonia and Lithuania, citizen “elves” are on the frontlines fighting Russian trolls online.

However, vulnerabilities in European democracies persist. Europe needs a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to counter the entire authoritarian toolkit more effectively. In a newly-released report, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) provides a policy blueprint that EU institutions, European governments, the private sector, media and civil society can follow to counter foreign interference.

Addressing domestic vulnerabilities, elevating the authoritarian threat on policy agendas, increasing transparency in the tech sector in how to address inauthentic behaviour on social media platforms, and improving coordination within governments, among allies and between sectors of a democratic society are crucial to protecting democracy in Europe.

The European Commission and the HR/VP have insisted that there is “no room for complacency.” This message should be heeded by all pillars of a democratic society; from governments to the individual citizen. Without action on authoritarian interference, Europe’s unity, prosperity and future are at stake.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is a former president of Estonia and member of the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) Advisory Council. Laura Rosenberger is Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy

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