European Union External Action

Foreign interference: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the European Parliament

Brussels, 01/03/2021 - 19:11, UNIQUE ID: 210301_6
HR/VP speeches

Speech at the EP Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation

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Mr Chairman, Monsieur le President, Members of the European Parliament,

Thank you for your invitation.

I appreciate very much the attention that this Parliament is giving to the challenge of foreign interference and disinformation.

The setting up of this Special Committee [on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation] is certainly very timely. It allows for a comprehensive discussion on challenges we are witnessing to the very functioning of our democracy and our interests.

I would like to start by welcoming the first working document that was presented by the rapporteur [Sandra Kalniete, Member of the European Parliament] and I am looking forward to your final report.

As you said, indeed, foreign interference poses a real threat to the European Union, to its Member States and to the open societies around the globe. It is a very intentional and coordinated attempt – it is not by accident, it is very intentional - to undermine trust, and to mislead and manipulate, targeting our values and our interests. And it comes in many different and creative shapes - I have to recognise that people who do that are very creative - online and offline, across borders and affecting many sectors.

It is what we say is a hybrid threat, a new kind of threat to global security. And it is requiring a robust response and close cooperation between our different institutions, public and private entities and with our like-minded allies. I hope that our exchange today will be an opportunity to reflect strategically on how to improve our response to these threats.

Well, let us be concrete. What are we concretely talking about?

Let us take the example of the COVID-19 pandemic. This event, the COVID-19 pandemic, has been providing us a concrete showcase, as it has been a real testing ground for new hybrid tactics. We have witnessed different state and non-state actors trying to abuse the global health crisis to advance their political or economic goals.

Hybrid campaigns have been targeting our democratic values, our information space and even our critical infrastructure in an attempt to weaken our societies and our democracies. That is what we call a ‘battle of narratives’. It has been emerging and it has been increasing for us with mask scarcity and now, today, with vaccine scarcity.

There are actors, like Russia, that have been disseminating and amplifying false or misleading information with an intention to undermine trust, to denigrate our democratic credentials or to weaken our international alliances.

Others, China can be an example, distort the information, silence the independent and critical voices and make their own voice louder, intimidating others and reducing the space for free and open debate. You can say that “well, this is just propaganda”. No, there is a border between propaganda and disinformation.

These campaigns are particularly harmful in the context of the pandemic, because they can actually put lives at risk. You remember the narrative about chlorine [dioxide] serving as a cure to the virus, and we have seen pro-Kremlin outlets spreading claims that wearing masks is useless or amplifying voices against lockdown measures.

The COVID-19 vaccines and the so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ have been the focus of such actions recently, with some actors – in particular, once again, Russia - either trying to discredit Western vaccines and vaccine manufacturers while promoting their own or using the offer of preferential distribution of their own vaccine in third countries to gain geopolitical leverage. For example, pro-Kremlin media have been reporting extensively about alleged side effects of people, even dying, after receiving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Dear Members,

We see that this threat does not only originate from the ‘usual suspects’. I have to recognise that in recent weeks this Committee has also been looking more closely at a number of different actors: Iran, Syria, ISIS.

It is not only a problem within the European Union, but also affects our partners and our interests around the world, from the Western Balkans and the Eastern and Southern neighbourhood, to Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Disinformation has become an ‘industrial scale’ problem with more and more actors using these tactics in different forms and in different scales.

For example, in the context of my visit to Moscow, the attempt to explore if we can reverse the deterioration of our relations to have a more constructive dialogue, was not welcomed at all by the Russian authorities, which did not appreciate me conveying messages of concern for us on human rights, starting with the Navalny case and the shrinking space for open voices in the country. In response, intentional and coordinated manipulations about what the European Union stands for have been deployed, which the European External Action Service quickly identified and publicly debunked several times in the last weeks.

For example, there were claims such as “the European Union’s sanctions are illegal”, which is fully unfounded given that the European Union has introduced sanctions in full accordance with the European and international law, restricting the sale of military and dual use equipment to Russia.

You can find this and other regular analyses and exposure of disinformation and information manipulations by pro-Kremlin sources on our website EUvsDisinfo. There is a lot of information there, as I am sure that you know. But please help us to disseminate because it is a very important source of information about disinformation.

Well, what else can we do about this?

Over the past years, we have put in place new structures and innovative approaches to detect and expose disinformation, starting with the work of the Strategic Communication Task Forces – StratCom - in the European External Action Service (EEAS), implementing a mandate from the European Council that many years ago mandated the EEAS to work on disinformation, starting with Russia. Let me here particularly thank you for your support, which has been crucial in order to have the financial means to develop this mandate.

Then we have the Rapid Alert System, connecting all relevant EU institutions and Member States. It has also proven to be very useful, particularly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This platform facilitates the sharing of insights, data and best practices on disinformation campaigns and the coordination of our response. These tools work. They have allowed us to gain a much better understanding of the tactics and techniques employed by disinformation actors, and to debunk and expose disinformation.

But our approach is also to be present pro-actively with clear and strong messaging about us - the European Union - and our policies. We have enhanced our strategic communication, providing factual information about the policies of the European Union. I, however, believe that we still need to improve our work and act in a more coordinated [way] with Member States and like-minded people.

We also actively support, we also bring our help to civil society in countries where their space to engage and to speak out is very much reduced by governments, by threats to personal freedoms, and even to their lives. They are a core pillar to fight interference and to dismiss censorship.

In concrete terms, we have conducted workshops to counter disinformation with civil society representatives and journalists from Libya and Syria. Together with fact-checkers, civil society and media organisations in Georgia we helped to raise awareness on foreign disinformation. We have supported studies on disinformation and conferences on media literacy in the Western Balkans.

This is in our neighbourhood but within the European Union, we have increased our cooperation and built stronger partnerships with civil society and private industry, in a kind of a whole-of-society approach, trying to reach out to all the people that can be engaged in this fight. And we have increased our cooperation with international partners like the G7 and NATO.

In spite of all that, there is a clear understanding that more needs to be done. In our discussion at the European Council on Friday, the leaders called for greater cooperation and coordination to prevent and respond to hybrid threats, including disinformation, as the Chairman of this Committee [Raphaël Glucksmann, Member of the European Parliament] has said at the beginning.

Together with the Commission, we will follow up on this call. My services working on relations with foreign actors and the external spectrum will seek to further strengthen our actions.

Happily, we are not starting from scratch: we have many tools to respond to hybrid threats already. Our cyber diplomacy toolbox, which was launched in 2017, allows us to use the full range of diplomatic measures at hand to prevent, deter and respond to malicious cyber activities.

Let me remember that in July and October last year, the European Union imposed for the first time sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for significant cyber-attacks, including those that targeted the heart of the German democracy, the Bundestag. In line with our new Cybersecurity Strategy, we will continue to work to help protect governments, citizens and businesses against malicious cyber activities, and to support our partners.

Drawing on these lessons learnt, I will also work to develop further the European Union’s toolbox for countering foreign interference, with new instruments that will have to be designed together with the Member States and the Commission.

We also need to improve attribution and exposure of disinformation campaigns, a common methodology and a way to collect systematic evidence on foreign interference across the EU.

The input of this Parliament will be very much welcome, as it is your active contribution to our existing efforts through, for example, your parliamentary diplomacy.

Well I think that is what I had to tell you, I thank you for your interest, I do not want to be longer so as to give space for questions and answers. Thank you for your interest, for your excellent work and I am looking forward to your continued contribution.

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