We need an EU-wide approach to tackling hybrid threats, warns Sandra Kalniete

For treating foreign interference and disinformation, we have a diagnosis and a prescription; the rest is up to the patient, says European Parliament's rapporteur

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By Sandra Kalniete

Sandra Kalniete (LV, EPP) is a member of Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference (INGE)

24 Nov 2021

This year, the INGE committee has heard the testimonies of more than 100 experts, whose contributions have formed the basis of the committee’s draft report. This report is a crucial and substantive milestone – it will lay the foundation for our collective EU effort to tackle foreign interference. The report is composed of two main blocks, reflecting the approach of the committee work over this past year.

The first is a comprehensive diagnosis of the patient – the EU - its exposure and, unfortunately, its contamination by foreign interference and disinformation. Second, the way forward – my suggestion for treatment and future preventive measures.

“It is a pipe dream to expect legislation to keep pace with the development of disruptive technologies, which is why our focus must lie on building an overall resilience base”

Fundamentally, our efforts should be based on a risk-based, whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach. It is a pipe dream to expect legislation to keep pace with the development of disruptive technologies, which is why our focus must lie on building an overall resilience base. It should also be stressed that all measures to prevent, detect and counter foreign interference must be designed in way that respects and promotes fundamental rights, including respect for privacy, civil liberty and freedom of thought and expression.

Through the chapters, I have assessed the major risks and proposed the consequent actions to be taken; I will outline a few of them in this article. For building EU resilience and awareness, urgent further development of the EEAS StratCom division, with its taskforces, is needed, including greater resources for addressing hostile disinformation from China and other countries that are exerting increasing assertiveness. Rather, the EU must not shy away from speaking the language of power to hostile authoritarian regimes in its neighbourhood.

The ongoing hybrid attack and mass disinformation campaign waged by the Lukashenka regime against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, seeking to destabilise and splinter the EU, should serve as a potent reminder of what is at stake. At the same time, activities to counter third country interference will not in, and of themselves, bring results, without parallel efforts to strengthen the resilience of our own societies.

Therefore, all Member States must include media and digital literacy in their educational programmes, including those for diasporas and minorities as part of a broader outreach to combat the severe lack of awareness of the severity of these threats. The EU must also step up and demonstrate serious initiative in ensuring sustainable, durable and transparent funding for independent and investigative journalism. Search jobs

Understandably, online platforms are at the centre of attention when discussing disinformation. In fact, the INGE committee was privileged to recently hear from Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen. It should be beyond doubt that we clearly need a robust Digital Services Act that requires greater platform accountability and transparency and a binding Code of Practice, comprehensively implemented at national levels.

“Hostile threats to our democratic institutions should concern every single MEP, across the entirety of the political spectrum”

I am also calling for an assessment of the regulatory situation and possibilities for stricter regulation for the data market. Although large parts of the data brokering industry are legal, the reality is that we are operating in a digital Wild West, where several thousand loosely regulated private companies possess thousands of data points on individuals. This situation is inherently fraught with risk and deserves proper impact assessment and new regulation. 

In order to tackle the covert funding of political activities by foreign donors, prohibition of shell companies and more robust requirements to reveal the origin of funding through so-called parent companies is essential. The INGE report will certainly call on the Commission to devise the guidelines for Member States, aimed at closing all loopholes that allow opaque financing of political parties. In my view, all Member States should be seeking to prohibit political donations from third countries.

We should also talk about the growing and pervasive threat of interference through elite capture, attempts to manipulate with national diasporas, universities - all politically sensitive domains. The most active hostile foreign actors here are Russia and China. The EU can, and should, take steps to mitigate this by reforming the Transparency Register, including stringent transparency rules, and updating the mapping of foreign funding for EU-related lobbying.

When focusing on critical infrastructures and strategic sectors, we need an EU-wide approach to tackling hybrid threats, securing financing alternatives to avoid large segments of the EU’s critical infrastructures falling into the possession of third countries.

In addition, to strengthen cybersecurity and resilience, the EU should invest more in its capacities in the area of 5G and post-5G technologies, in order to reduce supply chain dependencies on foreign suppliers. For more effective deterrence and collective sanctions, I support adding a tailored sanctions regime (under the relevant articles of the Treaties) in the domain of foreign interference, including disinformation. 

I am convinced that the issues we have covered in the INGE committee work this year truly extend beyond party politics. Hostile threats to our democratic institutions should concern every single MEP, across the entirety of the political spectrum. It is therefore my hope that I can count on a broad support to advance necessary changes, however difficult or unpleasant. Some medicines and health maintenance may seem bitter and burdensome, but the alternatives are even more grim and unpalatable.

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