Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight

Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight |

Eurobarometer figures published last December confirm European citizens' distrust of the European Union (Photo: European Commission)

Editor’s note: After reading this first edition of the newsletter Brussels Dispatches, we decided to reach out to Wilf King and Pierre Minoves, respectively working for the European Parliament and Commission, who together started it. Their motivation, as Wilf wrote, “was born out of numerous conversations with friends and family. When explaining my job or the city in which I work, I often get asked questions such as ‘What do you actually do though?’ or ‘Does any of this actually impact me?'”.

Less than 10 weeks away from the European elections, the integrity of public debate is even more in the spotlight.

  • Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight |

    As of March 2024, more than 12,300 entities are listed in the transparency register, including almost 8,000 business-related lobbying associations and 3,500 NGOs

In her 2022 State of the Union address, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had already taken up the subject, before the Qatargate scandal arose, describing malicious interference as a “Trojan horse” attacking “democracies from the inside”.

The Qatargate files, which revealed the existence of a vast network of corruption within the European Parliament benefiting Qatar and Morocco, sent shockwaves through the European public sphere over a year ago. This corruption plot, for the benefit of foreign entities, raised concerns about the proper functioning of European institutions, prompting questions about the risks of foreign interference and the control of influence over public policy.

The risk of foreign interference in public decision-making can also be seen in disinformation campaigns that can destabilise European elections. The report published in February by Viginum, the French organisation tasked with tracking foreign digital interference, revealed the existence of a network responsible for relaying information from Russian and pro-Russian social networks, press agencies, and official Russian sites.

Named “Portal Kombat” by the French authorities, the network aims to undermine the credibility of the European Union and influence the upcoming European elections. The Russiagate scandal that recently hit the European Parliament, revealing a Russian propaganda network, is a concrete illustration of the omnipresence of this threat.

The threat of foreign interference hangs over the European public debate, and the European institutions have taken action to strengthen their framework to restore citizens’ trust in their functioning and in their representatives.

The representativeness of European institutions is a central challenge for the construction of Europe. The need to rebuild public trust in the European institutions has been accelerated by the Qatargate scandal, and is made all the more necessary with the European elections taking place on 6 and 9 June.

Eurobarometer figures published last December confirm European citizens’ distrust of the European Union, with only 47 percent of Europeans trusting the EU.

How can citizen trust be strengthened and the integrity of public officials within the European institutions improved in order to protect the European public debate?

The Qatargate scandal has revealed loopholes in the transparency and regulation of interest representation activities. This article sets out to summarise the current state of ethical and transparency rules governing the actions of European public officials, and the initiatives undertaken to strengthen European institutions in the context of the upcoming European elections.

The notion of ethics is often addressed a posteriori, following a scandal that highlights the deficiencies in existing rules. The ethical framework of an institution, and a fortiori of a public institution, is the guarantee of its proper functioning and solidity in front of possible attempts of destabilisation.

Article 15 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union stipulates that “The Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies conduct their work as openly as possible in order to ensure the participation of civil society and thus promote good governance”. This general objective can only be achieved by establishing ethical rules and transparent decision-making practices.

The European institutions already had rules on the transparency of interest representation activities, with the transparency register, which were strengthened in the wake of Qatargate and by the EU Commission’s proposal to create a European ethics body.

Transparency of interest representation activities

Identifying the players influencing European decision-making was the impetus behind the creation in 2011 of the joint transparency register of the European Parliament and the European Commission. Following a reform of the register in 2021, the Council also joined this register.

The register lists entities leading lobbying activities directed toward European institutions and highlights the interests represented and budgets allocated.

The definition of lobbying at the European level is understood broadly, encompassing “all activities carried out with the aim of influencing the policies and decision-making processes of the Union’s instruments, wherever they are carried out and whatever the channel or mode of communication used”.

As of March 2024, more than 12,300 entities are registered, including almost 8,000 business-related lobbying associations and 3,500 NGOs.

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Being registered is necessary to obtain accreditation to the European Parliament and to take part in hearings, meet commissioners and members of their cabinets, or gain access to the buildings. However, at the time of the Qatargate scandal, exceptions were made for representatives of third countries and former MEPs.

Since the Qatargate scandal, the European Parliament has revised its rules of procedure, on the basis of a 14-point reform plan presented in the wake of the events by its president Roberta Metsola. The reform provides for greater publicity of MEPs’ meetings with interest representatives and tougher sanctions on the supervision of “friendship groups” with third countries.

MEPs will be required to attach suggestions from outside parties to their reports and opinions, and will not be allowed to have contact with former MEPs during the six-month cooling-off period at the end of their term of office. At the end of this six-month period, former MEPs wishing to engage in lobbying activities must register in the Transparency Register to carry out these activities and have access to the buildings.

The creation of a European ethics body

The European Commission’s response took concrete form with the publication in June last year of the proposal for a European ethics body presented by the European Commission’s vice-president Vĕra Jourová.

This body will provide all European institutions with “common, clear, transparent and comprehensible standards” applying to all EU politicians on ethical issues. The common standards to be established by this new body will cover areas ranging from the acceptance of gifts, invitations and travel offered by third parties, to transparency measures for meetings with interest representatives and obligations to declare interests and assets.

This body will concern the political members of the institutions participating in the inter-institutional agreement and will be composed of representatives from each of these institutions and five external experts.

The contours of this new European ethics body are still under discussion — but the proposal marks a concrete step forward in the unification of rules applicable to the institutions and a strengthening of the European ethical framework.

More generally, and in addition to strengthening the ethical framework applicable to its public officials, the European Union has placed the control of foreign influences at the heart of its work, in order to limit the risks associated with the threat of foreign interference.

In 2020, the European Parliament set up a special committee on this subject, chaired by MEP Raphaël Glucksmann. The European Commission presented a “defence of democracy” package on last Decemebr containing a directive on the transparency of interest representation on behalf of third countries.

The directive aims to ensure the transparency of services financed by third countries (directly or indirectly) and whose purpose is to influence European public debate. The text provides for the establishment of national registers in which activities aimed at developing the influence of third countries must be declared.

In conclusion, just over a year after the Qatarargate scandal and a few months ahead of the European elections, the European Union has made progress in consolidating the ethical framework applicable to its institutions, taking into account the growing threat of foreign interference, which needs to be addressed coherently within member states.

Disclaimer: The official version of the article is in French.

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