European democracy is going through a period of permanent threats. On the eastern front, autocratic tendencies in Poland and Hungary seek to undermine the separation of powers and leave increasingly less room to civil society; meanwhile, Romania’s moves to ensure impunity for corruption are a matter of great concern. And so is press freedom in Malta and Slovakia, where two journalists who were investigating ties between governing officials, tax havens and organized crime have been murdered. Turkey, for its part, has ceased to be the candidate that we once looked toward with hope. And Vladimir Putin’s Russia keeps trying to interfere with the EU’s internal affairs.
Although some people are still skeptical about the idea that Russia may be trying to destabilize the EU with a combination of disinformation, double-edged funding and support for populism, it is no fiction but a real fact that the Kremlin is giving each country what it needs to fail: fear of immigrants, separatist fuel, anti-establishment movements...
Some are amazed and confused by the fact that Russia has no qualms about supporting the far right and the far left within the same country, as it is doing in Greece and Italy. Nor does it hesitate to simultaneously aid radical leftist populism and outdated nationalism in Spain. You may wonder how it is possible for Putin to welcome [leftist Greek prime minister] Alexis Tsipras with open arms while his television network RT praises the far-right British politician Nigel Farage and the Scottish separatist Alex Salmond. The answer is simple: what Russia wants is for us to destroy ourselves from within, without even having to mobilize its army.
In the EU, respect for democracy cannot be voluntary
To that end, Russia supports and funds the elements that could be most detrimental to our social harmony and unity. When its propaganda machinery – perhaps the most powerful weapon in a Russia dealing with obsolete military equipment and an economic recession – flooded social media with a poisonous article headlined “Why doesn’t NATO bomb Madrid for 78 days?” following the false referendum in Catalonia, it was not an isolated case but a head-on attack against Spanish democracy, and thus against European democracy.
This attack is part of the general strategy that governs Putin’s political mission to weaken the European Union. However, we know that he lacks a well-designed roadmap to achieve this. Instead, he works on a trial-and-error basis, exploiting any show of discontent on the ground and thinking up falsehoods to create unrest where there was none.
However, the greatest challenge lies within the Union itself. If Russia did not enjoy internal support in Europe, we would not now be talking about it as one of the great threats of our time. With their money and fake news, Putin and his retinue of oligarchs and propagandists are breathing life into populism. A populism that feels uncomfortable with European values, prefers autocratic techniques, and sees benefits in the threat from Russia.
It’s not about establishing a Ministry of Truth
Faced with this disturbing reality, we democrats must stand firm for the values that define us as Europeans: respect for civil liberties, the rule of law, equality, justice, solidarity, plurality, tolerance and of course, diversity. Without these values, our democracy could end up being devoured by those who preach hate and intransigence. It is a hypothetical scenario, but not an impossible one, and it bears too much of a resemblance to the worst parts of our own history.
So faced with the diplomacy of nuclear plants, Londongrad or golden passports, it is essential to take steps toward adopting measures for financial integrity, and not be willing to award European citizenship to the first oligarch who puts half a million euros on the table. Let’s send out a clear signal that Europe is serious.
We can and must also act against disinformation, both the Russian kind and the homegrown kind. And we must do so as soon as possible. Every minute that we spend debating whether it is better or worse to legislate against disinformation is a minute lost. It is neither better or worse: it is simply necessary, both at the national level and especially at the European one.
The greatest challenge lies within the Union itself
It’s not about establishing a Ministry of Truth, or about curtailing freedom of expression. It’s about protecting the job of journalists and safeguarding citizens’ rights to live in a healthy democracy that is well informed, not manipulated.
This week, the European Commission is presenting a document that could be a starting point to begin legislating against fake news... or could also fall short. It would be a wasted opportunity if we don’t demand, but just suggest, greater accountability from digital platforms; if we don’t force Russian media outlets to identify themselves as what they really are, foreign agitation agents; if we don’t solidly encourage media literacy programs to improve social resilience against lies.
It is not enough to try out a few lax measures and see how it goes. It is not enough to wait for cooperation from the same social network that left data from 2.7 million Europeans within the reach of Cambridge Analytica and which has yet to provide explanations before the European Parliament. We cannot allow populism to keep using the internet to amplify its message of hate, or the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to disseminate incendiary falsehoods.
In the European Union, respect for democracy cannot be voluntary, nor can freedom of expression be abused to attack that very same democracy. If we cannot agree that it is urgent to defend our democracy before the growing authoritarian tendencies around us – by protecting it with new laws, if necessary – then Putin will have won. And with him, all those who are bothered by democracy and would rather impose a republic where the opposition would have no voice, where the president would handpick the judges, where coup-mongering politicians would know themselves to be immune from justice, and where children would be indoctrinated at school. Sound familiar?
Ramón Luis Valcárcel is Vice-President of the European Parliament and a MEP for the People’s Party (PP).
English version by Susana Urra.