Von der Leyen pitches plan to shield EU from foreign interference if re-elected

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the democracy summit Copenhagen Democracy Summit in Copenhagen, Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the democracy summit Copenhagen Democracy Summit in Copenhagen, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Copyright Ida Marie Odgaard/AP
Copyright Ida Marie Odgaard/AP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Ursula von der Leyen has unveiled plans to set up a European Democracy Shield to protect the EU from malign foreign interference if she secures a second term at the helm of the Commission.

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It comes as the bloc braces itself for a potential wave of disinformation in the run up to June’s European elections, and amid fears it is profoundly unprepared to tackle new forms of hybrid warfare.

In a speech delivered at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit on Tuesday morning, von der Leyen said she was "concerned" about the rise of disinformation and foreign interference in Europe, warning that the "core tenets of our democracy" were under attack.

Speaking in her capacity as lead candidate for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP)- which is topping the pan-EU poll - she promised to set up a European Democracy Shield to bolster the bloc's capabilities to fight foreign influence if she secures a second term as Commission president. 

The Shield would be tasked with detecting and removing online disinformation - building on the work of the EU's digital rulebook, the Digital Services Act (DSA) - and "inoculating" the bloc against malign influence by enabling Europeans to recognise threats.

The 65-year-old referenced the proliferation of fake news and AI-generated deep-fakes, as well as reports that foreign governments are "buying influence and causing chaos" in parliaments across Europe as some of her greatest concerns.

Since last month, a sprawling investigation is underway into allegations that an undefined number of European parliamentarians - including members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party - received money from Kremlin-backed actors to spread Russian propaganda.

It has sharpened fears that the Kremlin is actively looking to destabilise European societies in the run-up to June's vote. 

"We have seen far-right politicians and lead candidates from AfD in Germany in the pockets of Russia," von der Leyen said on Tuesday. "They are selling their souls on Russian propaganda outlets and videos."

The bloc is currently preparing to slap sanctions against four pro-Kremlin entities suspected of spreading propaganda in the bloc as part of its 14th package of sanctions against Russia. 

They include Voice of Europe, the media entity sanctioned by Czech authorities in late March after it was busted as a Russian propaganda operation with regular access to sitting MEPs, predominantly from the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group or non-attached members.

Also last month, an aide of a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the AfD party was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. The case is currently in the hands of Germany's Federal Prosecutor.

Von der Leyen slammed the malign manipulation as a means of "giving cover and encouragement to the more dangerous extremes in our societies."

She also expressed concern over the raft of cyber attacks waged against European countries in recent weeks. In the first days of May only, Berlin has revealed how e-mail accounts belonging to Chancellor Olaf Scholz were compromised by Russian hackers last year, while the European Parliament has also raised the alarm over a data breach involving job applicants.

Reports have also emerged that Russia is disrupting satellite navigation systems needed for civilian flights in Europe, also known as GPS jamming. It forced Finland's national carrier Finnair to suspend flights to the Estonian city of Tartu for a month due to persistent GPS interruption - both countries share a border with Russia.

Von der Leyen's own campaign website became the target of an orchestrated attack by bots on May 7.

She said these coordinated attacks were part of a broader plan to weaken Europe's "resilience" and commitment to supporting Ukraine. 

Europe unprepared

The European Shield is also designed to fill a conspicuous gap in Europe's capabilities to address new forms of hybrid warfare, including disinformation campaigns. 

While France and Sweden have national agencies mandated to monitor and protect against foreign interference, the EU is seen as profoundly unprepared to tackle disinformation campaigns designed to foster division and fuel anti-European sentiment.

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EPP sources say that neither the EU nor its member states are prepared because of a significant lack of investment and resources.

The bloc's diplomatic arm, the EEAS, has aimed to lead EU efforts to fight foreign information manipulation and interference, targeted specifically at Russian propaganda campaigns.

But the EEAS' efforts are mainly targeted at identifying such campaigns, and do not propose measures to tackle and dismantle the operations beyond a mere "toolbox" for member states.

Von der Leyen said her next Commission's new initiative would build on the work carried out under the DSA to oblige platforms to take down fake news and provide more transparency on political advertising.

But she said that despite the efforts of the EU's new AI Act - a world-first bill to regulate fast-moving artificial intelligence technologies - the bloc needs to "strengthen" its approach to tackling deep-fakes, often used to fabricate audio and video content of political figures.

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She also said that bolstering media literacy and attuning Europeans to propaganda operations, or "pre-bunking," will be a priority.

"Instead of treating an infection once it has taken hold, that’s the de-bunking, it is better to vaccinate, so that our body is inoculated," she explained.

"Because disinformation relies on people passing it on to others – it is essential that people know what malign information’s influence is and what the techniques look like. As that knowledge goes up – our chances of being influenced go down. And that builds up the societal resilience that we will need."

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