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Euroviews. We will see more friends of Putin and Xi in the new European Parliament 

A view of the European Parliament during a plenary session in Strasbourg, March 2019
A view of the European Parliament during a plenary session in Strasbourg, March 2019 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Péter Krekó, Richárd Demény, Political Capital Institute
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

After the European elections, authoritarian regimes will have more entry points to influence EU decision-making, Péter Krekó and Richárd Demény write.

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The Qatargate crisis is the biggest corruption case to hit the European Parliament in decades — arguably the most serious.

At the time, Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, addressed her colleagues in a crisis session by stating, "European democracy is under attack". 

Equally, the allegations of corruption and espionage surrounding MEP Maximilian Krah, the lead candidate of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), show how far Russia and China are willing to go in influencing the political decisions of the EU. 

The German judiciary launched two preliminary investigations against Krah over alleged payments from Russia and China for his work in the Parliament. One of Krah's aides was even arrested over claims that he spied for China. Likewise, Petr Bystron, second on the AfD's list, is facing allegations that he accepted payments from Russia. 

The threat is growing because parties with authoritarian instincts are more enthusiastic supporters of authoritarian states — and they often receive something in turn. These parties will gain influence in the upcoming EP elections: the Identity and Democracy Group, for example, may become the third largest in the EP.

Raise your hands if you like Putin

These most recent examples are not isolated cases: Marine Le Pen’s 2014 EP campaign was shown to have been financed by Russia.

While the European Parliament is arguably the least influential of the EU bodies, its members (MEPs) wield power in shaping legislation, particularly in the final stages. 

We can now see that authoritarian states are willing to buy influence in the European Parliament and its committees. They are attempting to bribe MEPs to become Trojan horses of foreign interference. And, of course, some of the money transfers get returns in the form of votes. 

According to our research, the European Parliament’s mainstream political groups are critics of authoritarian regimes, while those at either end of the spectrum are much more supportive.

The pet regime of far-right authoritarians is Putin’s Russia: ID is significantly more critical of China and other authoritarian countries than of Russia. Meanwhile, the far left is fond of both Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Naryn-Kala fortress in Derbent, June 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Naryn-Kala fortress in Derbent, June 2023Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik via AP

Renew is the most critical of authoritarian states, closely followed by the European People's Party, the Greens, and Socialists and Democrats, with the European Conservatives and Reformists lagging behind.

The far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) and the far-left Left are by far the least critical. At the same time, there are small differences between them. 

The pet regime of far-right authoritarians is Putin’s Russia: ID is significantly more critical of China and other authoritarian countries than of Russia. Meanwhile, the far left is fond of both Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China: the Left group is less critical of Russia and China and more critical of other authoritarians. 

Mainstream parties from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, and Romania, as well as opposition parties from Hungary and Slovakia, are highly critical of Moscow and Beijing in the European Parliament.

However, in the European arena, criticism of authoritarians is socially desirable (and reflects the convictions of individual MEPs), and Eastern Europeans usually feel they have to behave. Yet, the same parties are far more supportive towards revisionist superpowers in their domestic parliaments or when in government. 

'Looking for Freedom'

In Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania, domestic representatives are more “pragmatic” about these authoritarians. For instance, MEPs from the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) condemn authoritarians with the rest of the mainstream parties in the European Parliament. However, at home, the ÖVP-led government blocks Kremlin critical initiatives. 

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Other parties are more consistent friends of authoritarians. Some of these parties are already in government — or will be in government soon.

Most are on the fringes — such as Czechia's Freedom and Direct Party and Slovakia's Republic Movement. The one notable exception is the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which leads the polls in Austria and could become a governmental party in the upcoming European elections. 

The FPÖ maintains notoriously friendly ties with the Kremlin and even signed a "friendship" agreement with the Putin party, United Russia, in 2016.

The FPÖ MEPs failed to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine in key votes and speeches. It has agitated against EU sanctions levied on Russia, calling for a referendum on the issue in Austria.  

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Extremist parties like the FPÖ stand to gain more mandates, and new far-right and pro-Kremlin ones, such as the Hungarian Our Homeland (Mi Hazánk) and the Bulgarian Revival (Vazrazhdane), are likely to join the European Parliament.
Protesters hold a banner "no for refugee camp" during a demonstration against a refugee camp in Vienna, March 2016
Protesters hold a banner "no for refugee camp" during a demonstration against a refugee camp in Vienna, March 2016Ronald Zak/AP

On the election billboards of FPÖ, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is kissing Ursula von der Leyen, showing how far Brussels goes in “warmongering”. 

Some parties appear to be "soft defenders" of the Kremlin and other authoritarians. Hungary's Fidesz, Slovakia's SMER-SD, and Bulgaria's BSP  use similar language to the far right but deliberately withdraw from voting in the European Parliament, presumably out of concern for the reputational costs of openly supporting authoritarians.

The shift of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz is spectacular. Since Fidesz was expelled from EPP in 2021, Fidesz MEPs are voting more often in favour of Russia and China.

The Fidesz MEPs seem to abstain from voting deliberately to avoid condemning countries that are friendly to the Hungarian government. They missed more votes on issues relevant to Russia than the number of Kremlin-critical votes they cast.

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After Russia's full-scale invasion of Russia, they abstained more frequently and even started to vote against resolutions condemning the Kremlin. Alarmingly, on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, they failed to vote on a resolution condemning Russia for its war of aggression, as well as Belarus' alliance with Russia.

Strong allies await

After the European elections, authoritarian regimes will have more entry points to influence EU decision-making.

Extremist parties like the FPÖ stand to gain more mandates, and new far-right and pro-Kremlin ones, such as the Hungarian Our Homeland (Mi Hazánk) and the Bulgarian Revival (Vazrazhdane), are likely to join the European Parliament.

So, when authoritarian states keep softening the European Parliament's hawkish foreign policy approach, they will find a strong ally in the increasingly strong far right.

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Péter Krekó is Executive Director, and Richárd Demény is Political Analyst at the Political Capital Institute.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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