Will Russia interfere in the European elections ?

, par Céline Geissmann

Will Russia interfere in the European elections ?
Image : CC0

The European elections are taking place this weekend and they could become the victim of election interference – just as it happened recently for the last midterm elections in the US in November 2018, or during the last French presidential elections. How serious is the threat ? Is the EU ready to protect its democracy ?

This weekend, European citizens have the opportunity to vote for 751 Members of the European Parliament. The scale of the elections and the political fragmentation makes the European elections a perfect target for election interference. A field were Russia has already a proven track record.

Why the European elections are a target

Indeed, for many years, Russia has been supporting parties and governments who build anti-European narrative in order to weaken the European institutions. Thus, the European elections present a great occasion for the Kremlin to strengthen these ties by financial support and online disinformation.

Furthermore, European elections often face a low turnout and European topics are less familiar to European citizens, making the manipulation of information even easier. Finally, the European electoral system is very diverse : countries are not all voting the same day, some have paper ballots and count votes manually, while others have electronic voting or electronic ballot counting machines. This lack of harmonisation enables cyber incursions in the less well-prepared countries, spreading doubt that could affect the entire Union.

Last but not least, the European elections could be the perfect moment for Putin’s administration to test new election interference tactics before the US presidential election in 2020.

Europe is divided on electoral protection

This threat is not new, and last March the European Council President Donald Tusk stated : "There are external anti-European forces which are seeking – openly or secretly – to influence the democratic choices of the Europeans".

Despite this EU-wide recognition of a common threat, every member state is developing its own protection against cyber-attacks, manipulation of information and election interference, especially because ensuring the integrity of election remains a national competency. Consequently, ensuring coordination and coherence between member states remains difficult.

How the European institutions fight against electoral interference

The European Commission tried to organise the efforts to address cybersecurity and disinformation in the framework of the European elections. The External Action Service established an East StratCom Task Force in 2016 to “better forecast, address and respond to pro-Kremlin disinformation”. Unfortunately, despite a budget increase, the funding remains quite modest to tackle this enormous task and depends on the willingness of member states to collaborate. Furthermore, the disinformation coming from within the EU is outside the scope of the Task Force.

The Commission also put in a place a High-Level Group on Fake News and online disinformation in a multi-stakeholder approach that released several recommendations. We can expect that the new Parliament will continue to legislate on the issues, following the ongoing regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online.

Regarding technical coordination, the European Council adopted its conclusions on free and fair European elections in February 2019, which include the organisation of regular meetings of the European election cooperation network as well as setting up a Rapid Alert System where national contact points in member states can share information swiftly on disinformation campaigns. However, the late implementation of these measures will likely prevent their efficiency.

These national initiatives from the European Council do not mean that there are no attempts at the supranational level. The European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) contributes to securing Europe’s information society and provides recommendations on cybersecurity. In April 2019, a test was organised to examine the EU’s response to cyberattacks and its crisis plan for potential cybersecurity incidents affecting the EU elections.

Current efforts are not enough

However, only a strong European answer is truly able to face the threat ; otherwise, malicious actors will stoke division, promote anti-European narrative and delegitimise electoral democracy. We need to enhance the coordination by giving more tools and funding to ENISA [1] and put in place a sanctions system on individual hackers or groups linked to governments that attempt to interfere in any elections in Europe. We also need more coordination in the future concerning the electoral procedures during the European elections.

The work against election interference won’t end once the European Parliament ballots are cast, and a comprehensive review following by actions will be needed. Nevertheless, the challenge is not only technical, but preserving democracy also entails offering positive narrative about the EU in a context of the rise or nationalism and Euroscepticism. This task includes protecting the rule of law and freedom of speech that are threatened in some EU member states.

Any form of interference is a great danger for European democracy and international peace, and thus should be taken seriously.

Notes

[1The European Union Agency for Network and Information Security.

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