European Union External Action

Response to disinformation around COVID-19: Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Read-out of the College meeting

Brussels, 10/06/2020 - 14:23, UNIQUE ID: 200610_4

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Today, the College [of Commissioners] meeting started with an oral update from Michel Barnier, the Chief negotiator for the Commission for the future relationship with the United Kingdom, on the state of play of these negotiations. The College took note of the forthcoming second meeting – it will take place this Friday – of the joint committee on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and of the high-level meeting between the European Union and the United Kingdom that will take place still this month.

The College has also been discussing the measures taken by Member States at internal borders in the context of the coronavirus crisis and the temporary restrictions of non-essential travel to the EU area. As far as internal borders are concerned, the College took note of the fact that several Member States are in the process of lifting internal borders controls and considered that this process should be finalised in the course of this month of June.

The lifting of temporary travel restrictions at external borders will come at a second stage. In this respect, later this week, the College will adopt its assessment of travel restrictions and will put forward an approach for the gradual and partial lifting of these restrictions as of the 1st of July, with certain third countries, taking into account a number of principles and criteria, and based on a common coordinated approach by Member States, supported by the Commission.

After dealing with these two issues, the main discussion was focused on the Joint Communication on tackling COVID-19 disinformation.

It is clear that the coronavirus has had a massive and devastating impact on people around the world. It is still not over and for the time being has taken over 400,000 lives globally. But this is not the only virus that is causing problems. The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive infodemic.

We have witnessed a wave of false and misleading information, hoaxes and conspiracy theories, as well as targeted influence operations by foreign actors. Some of these are aimed at harming the European Union and its Member States, trying to undermine our democracies, the credibility of the European Union and of national authorities.

What is more, disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. Misleading health information, consumer fraud, cybercrime or targeted disinformation campaigns by foreign actors pose several potential risks to our citizens, their health and their trust in public institutions. We have, for example, seen disinformation saying that drinking bleach can cure the coronavirus or that washing hands does not help. It can also have a very direct material impact. Take, for instance, the vandalism against 5G infrastructures in some Member States.

In front of all this, we need to take decisive actions and we have a duty to our citizens to make them aware of false information, to expose the actors responsible for spreading it, and to step up our existing work to deal with this challenge.

In today’s technology-driven and competing world, warriors wield keyboards rather than swords. Targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns are a recognised weapon of State and non-State actors. That is why we have been working together - the European External Action Service and Commission services, led by my colleague and friend Vĕra [Jourová, Vice-President in charge of a stronger Europe in the World], and we have been working together on this Joint Communication.

We looked at the lessons learned and key activities undertaken in response to the infodemic. We also outlined concrete steps to be taken immediately to increase our capacity to deal with disinformation.

The Communication explains what we did and what we plan to do. On the external front, we have been working to counter misleading narratives with strategic communications and public diplomacy in our neighbourhood, the Western Balkans and around the world – especially in Africa.

This also involves coordination with the World Health Organization, an important cooperation that will continue to expand.

We support regional governments in tackling the crisis and we are taking actions to debunk disinformation that can further fuel tensions in conflict areas – Sahel, the Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

The European External Action Service has also stepped up efforts to address foreign influence operations, publishing regular reports analysing the trends in disinformation and sharing findings with Member States, the European Commission, international partners, civil society, media and expert communities. We have a European Union Rapid Alert System that has proven to be a valuable tool to share information and analysis with Member States.

Looking ahead, we will further enhance our action by stepping up concrete cooperation on strategic communication and public diplomacy – public diplomacy is very important - with Member States and international partners such as the G7 and NATO, but also the United Nations, the OSCE, Council of Europe and the African Union. We will empower our European Union Delegations all over the world in this regard. We will intensify the exchange of information with relevant partners and with ‘Team Europe’ – a brand that we are using more and more - we foresee support for partners in tackling the impact of the pandemic, promoting access to reliable information.

Last but certainly not least, we will also enhance our work in monitoring violations of press freedom and supporting advocacy for a safer media environment. Democracy is a system that is fuelled by information. Information is the raw material of democracy. If people do not have the right information, it is going to be difficult for them to make the right choices. Their choices have to be based on quality information, fairness and trust in facts and figures. Facts are one thing and opinions are another. Opinions are free; facts are facts. We have to fight for the facts to be the right and true ones in order to fuel a fair democratic system.

Thank you.

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