EU must defend itself against Russian interference

With just under a year to go until the European Parliament elections, Sajjad Karim warns that Europe must not allow Moscow to disrupt democracy.

Sajjad Karim | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Sajjad Karim

18 Jun 2018

During the past few years, European politics has undergone significant change. It has seen Britain take the decision to leave the EU, a French nationalist come dangerously close to the country’s presidency and most recently, a populist government formed in Italy, one of the founding EU member states. The one thing these events all have in common is Russia.

The 2017 French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, in 2014 allegedly accepted Russian loans worth €11m.

Meanwhile billionaire philanthropist, George Soros, recently said he was “very concerned” that there is a “close relationship” between Italy’s deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For Brexit, the allegations of Russian-backed financing of the pro-Leave camp have continued to surface.

Last week’s questioning of Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore by the UK digital, culture, media and sport select committee demonstrated that the issue of Russian interference in our democracies will not disappear so easily.

Both these men were key players in the Leave.EU campaign and last week, they faced down a panel of MPs in Westminster with questions ranging from Cambridge Analytica to their dealings with Russia.

The pair recently came under considerable scrutiny following the leak of emails to the British press that gave extensive details of meetings they had with the Russian ambassador to the UK.

It also emerged that a deal worth billions of dollars involving Siberian gold mines and funded by a Russian state bank, was discussed. The deal went ahead 12 days after the Brexit vote.

Despite denying all the accusations pitched against them, including the true source of Arron Banks’ political donation to Leave.EU - the biggest in UK history - many questions still remain as to the legitimacy of the pro-Brexit campaigns’ finances and what can be done to prevent such activity in the future.

The electoral commission, which is investigating Banks’ donations, is limited in the punishments it can impose on any breaches of electoral law.

It must be made fit for purpose, better equipped to deal with the clear and present dangers that now face our voting systems, including the veracity of financial contributions.

Stephen Kinnock MP has even suggested that the police launch a criminal investigation into Banks, “based on an in-depth forensic look into the Kremlin connection”.

One solution might be to require politicians and major funders – such as Arron Banks – to make full declarations of their wealth,. This would include any assets they hold both domestically and abroad, as well as disclosing their tax returns. It would mean that there would no longer be any question over where political donations originate from.

Most importantly, it should be up to the political donor to prove the origin of their funds. They must carry the burden of proof. If they cannot adequately do so, then that donation should be excluded.

However, what is more worrying now is the stability of future elections in Europe. Investigating and uncovering links to the Russian government in relation to the Brexit campaign is not, and never was, about reversing the referendum outcome. It has always been about ensuring that this type of subversive behaviour is prevented in the future.

It is now just under a year until the 2019 European elections take place and we cannot let them be undermined by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deliberate manoeuvres to disrupt our democracies.

It would not take much for Russia to destabilise the European Parliament by helping to bolster the pro-Russian far-right and far-left in the Parliament, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Ukip parties, which built their bases and established themselves in this very institution. Putin will pursue any opportunity to destabilise our institutions and weaken our will in standing up to his regime.

The Parliament risks being held to ransom by these extremist parties after next year’s vote, essentially in a state of paralysis. If we do not take action now, we will be surrendering our political stability and democratic values to the whim of the Russian government.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the tentacles of Russian interference reach all the way to the high echelons of European political life, a truly worrying realisation.

Putin’s antennae even reach German political life, with the far-right AfD party facing a parliamentary inquiry over Russian funding of a €25,000 flight that three of its members took last year.

Yet we cannot let that deter us; we must stand resolute in the face of these attacks. There is surely a goldmine of information waiting to be discovered and it is only a matter of time until this valuable material is uncovered. The Russian state has decided to attack democracy, so we must act to defend democracy.

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