Will Russia interfere in the 2019 European Elections?

Writing for EU Reporter Magazine Sajjad comments on Russia’s alleged meddling in the domestic matters of sovereign states is now common knowledge across the globe, the full extent of which is still unknown. The secretive hand of the Russian state is understood to have had an involvement in an array of cyber-attacks ranging from on national institutions to the headquarters of political parties, with a campaign of disinformation and so-called fake news at the forefront of this operation, 

When I first became aware of interference in Western politics by Putin’s government back in 2014, I was unable to discuss it, as people simply did not believe it was happening. At the time I was Chairing the Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members in the European Parliament, when it was brought to my attention that the soon to be French Presidential candidate and National Front MEP, Marine Le Pen, was receiving finances from Russian sources.

Because of her party’s racist and anti-Semitic past, French banks had refused to loan the party any money, so Le Pen turned elsewhere for funding.

She obtained Russian loans in 2014 worth €11million (£9.4m), one of which – totalling €9m – came from a small bank, with links to the Kremlin called First Czech Russian Bank. But as we now know, her attempt at high office wasn’t meant to be.

Targeted funding of opposition groups by the Russian state goes way beyond just a failed French presidential bid though. There is a clear network of political activists and actors involved in this web of Russian interference, which stretches the world over. You have only to look to our own shores to see the extent to which their influence spans.

Sajjad Karim, a British Conservative MEP and member of the President’s Code of Conduct Committee

With question marks still hanging over the financing of the EU Referendum’s Leave campaign and with what seems like a constant drip of news related to Trump, Russia and the 2016 US Election, the web seemingly never ends.

What is of primary concern now to us fellow Europeans though is the upcoming European Elections in 2019. Plans are without doubt already underway by the Russians to destabilize our electoral process, which historically has suffered from low turnout and as a result would be easily affected by any attempts to influence the vote.

Electorates – regardless of where they come from – tend to vote in a very reactionary way. If Putin and his government intend to target these elections, then they will surely use this to their advantage.

In Germany the use of Russian propaganda, aimed at influencing the voting intentions of the Russian-German population, is already widespread.

One incident in particular, the case of ‘our Lisa’ – a fake story about a Russian-German girl, who had reportedly been raped by Arab migrants – demonstrates the ease with which the Russian campaign of disinformation has infiltrated our continent.

It is even alleged that state-backed “troll factories” in St Petersburg attempted to sow discontent during the EU Referendum through social media, posting overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit.

Regardless of how influential the Russian interference is, there is still a tendency in Britain and Europe to rubbish these claims. What must be understood is that if these actions are successful, then the future direction of Europe will have been determined in Moscow.

The European Union could essentially be paralysed by Russian interference that dramatically alters the make-up of the European Parliament and it will have happened right under our very own noses.

This must not be allowed to happen.

Some of our leaders, including Prime Minister May, are fully aware of Putin’s activities and have made it clear that this will not stand.

Each and every EU leader should go one step further though. The information they possess on Russian activities should be presented in their own Parliaments, so that everyone is fully aware of the extent to which we are being undermined.

Just like in the US too, there should be investigations – but at an individual member state level – into the financial dealings of political actors who have facilitated the Russians in their attempts to destabilise our democratic systems. These inquiries and all the information obtained could then be pooled together, with a response at EU level.

Electoral commissions should also be made fit for purpose, better equipped to deal with the clear and present dangers that now face our voting systems. Combine this with the compulsory curbing on the activities of so-called bots by social media companies and this type of dishonest activity could effectively be stamped out.

Whatever the solution, the whole of Europe must wake-up to the fact that our democracies are being infiltrated by Russian actors whose sole intention is to disrupt and debase our political process.
The time to act is now before it is too late. Russia must not be allowed to influence our own decision-making.