EU High Representative Josep Borrell was forced by MEPs to refute claims that the EU had watered down elements of a key report on disinformation, after pressure from Beijing.
Borrell told MEPs last week: “Let me stress: the content and timing of the report were determined by the EEAS and the EEAS alone. We have not bowed to anyone.”
Borrell was asked to appear before deputies who had demanded “clarification” on allegations, first raised by the New York Times, that parts of a European External Action Service (EEAS) report on alleged disinformation activities by China and others were “softened” at the request of the Chinese government.
Appearing via a video link to the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee, Borrell sought to allay concerns the EEAS had “gone soft” on China in the report. He told MEPs, “China is a key player for the EU but I wish to clarify claims that the EEAS report succumbed to external pressure from China.
The report paints a complex picture about misinformation by China, Russia and others, including Syria and Iran. The idea of such misinformation is to present the EU as being weak and divided in its tackling of the pandemic.
“I can assure you that no changes were introduced to the report to allay the concerns of a third party, in this case China” EU High Representative Josep Borrell
Such a harmful narrative poses a serious risk to our citizens and public trust in our institutions. This information can kill.”
He added, “Let me stress: the content and timing of the report was determined by the EEAS and the EEAS alone. We have not bowed to anyone. Let me be clear. We are a diplomatic service. We maintain constant contact with third parties and this includes listening to their views. But this cannot be presented as the EU bowing to outside pressure. I can assure you that no changes were introduced to the report to allay the concerns of a third party, in this case China.”
After his 15 minute speech, some MEPs, most appearing via a video link, said they were unhappy with his explanation.
They included Belgian Renew Europe deputy Hilde Vautmans who told Borrell, “I find your comments to be unconvincing. We need the truth and we need it now. We must see the different versions of this report or the EEAS will lose credibility.”
Irish GUE/ NGL MEP Mick Wallace said, “I am not impressed by this report which has no serious links or sources for what it finds.”
However, German Greens MEP Reinhard Butikofer defended Borrell and the EEAS and said, “The EU has not caved in to anyone and this report is very useful. I just wish others would be as clear as this report is. But Mr Borrell: please tell your press people not to lie to the media.”
Polish EPP member Radosław Sikorski told Borrell, a former president of the European Parliament: “You are an honourable man and I accept your explanation. But it could be that you should look at whether this was an attempt to embarrass the EEAS because the NYT does not normally invent stories.”
“We need the truth and we need it now. We must see the different versions of this report or the EEAS will lose credibility” Hilde Vautmans MEP
The committee chair, German EPP member David McAllister, said, “Parliament has said that disinformation and propaganda issues are of upmost importance as was reflected in the resolution it adopted recently. This stressed that the EU must become more resilient in staying free from undue influence from China, Russia and others.”
He added, “I have read this report thoroughly and it is an interesting, timely and fact-based document. It certainly got plenty of media exposure and I am mindful of communisation issues. There have been issues raised about the content of the report and if there were attempts by China to influence the content.”
Ahead of the meeting, Renew Europe MEP Bart Groothuis had already written, along with other members, to Borrell asking for “clarification” on the allegations.
The EPP group, Parliament’s largest group, has also earlier voiced concern with its deputy leader Sandra Kalniete saying, “We are revolted by the reports revealing that the EEAS bowed under Chinese pressure and modified its findings about the Chinese disinformation campaign on COVID-19.”
She added, “The great battle of disinformation has been going on for years already and has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Russia and China have well-developed and all-encompassing propaganda strategies to weaken the EU as a whole, individual Member States internally and to discredit international organisations such as NATO.”
A spokesperson for the pan-European ALDE party said the EEAS report “used notably soft language towards China following pressure from Chinese officials. What’s more, China’s censorship machine has taken down any information that the government might consider fake, and many internet activists and journalists have been detained.”
The spokesperson added, “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, China has been using this public health emergency to deploy a global disinformation campaign. The campaign has targeted mainly Western countries and includes all sorts of disinformation intended to cover up the real number of people infected and build a new story deflecting the origins of the outbreak.”
The aim of the EEAS report, published on 24 April, was to provide an overview of current trends and insights into disinformation activities, or fake news, related to the COVID-19 pandemic around the world.
In a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 17 April, MEPs said that disinformation about COVID-19 is a “major public health problem.”
MEPs also called on social media companies to proactively take the necessary measures to stop disinformation and hate speech related to the Coronavirus crisis.