EU leaders contemplate sanctions against Russian interference in upcoming elections

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EU leaders on Wednesday weighed a response to suspicions of Russian meddling ahead of June elections in the bloc, with several states pushing for sanctions targeting “malign activities” by Moscow.

Brussels has issued escalating warnings about Russia sowing disinformation ahead of the polls, and seeking to weaken Western support for Ukraine as it fights off Moscow’s invasion.

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The issue reared its head dramatically in recent weeks after Czech intelligence uncovered evidence EU lawmakers took money to spread Kremlin propaganda through a Prague-based news site -- allegations now under investigation in Belgium, which hosts the EU’s top institutions.

European Council President Charles Michel, speaking after day one of a summit in Brussels, said EU leaders had addressed the threat of Russian interference and agreed to join forces to counter it.

“We need to be much more vigilant, we need to cooperate much more” and show Russia that “we are not naïve,” he told reporters.

“We need to bring together the tools we have, the European institutions on the one hand, but also the national authorities on the other,” he said.

The prime ministers of Belgium and the Czech Republic, Alexander De Croo and Petr Fiala, had appealed to fellow leaders to consider new sanctions to counter Russian “malign activities.”

In their draft summit conclusions, EU leaders alluded to the threat, vowing to “closely monitor and contain” risks, including “foreign information manipulation and interference in electoral processes.”

De Croo also said the Belgian EU presidency and the European Parliament would set up a joint task force to track developments and liaise with national authorities.

But with Russia-friendly leaders in the room -- Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s Robert Fico -- there appeared little chance EU leaders would go much further in the politically charged lead-up to June’s European elections.

Lawmakers under suspicion

The EU parliament allegations revolve around a site called Voice of Europe, which is known for publishing stories repeating Russian messaging and giving airtime to guests who do so.

“When I am shown reports with concrete proof about money used to influence the election results, that’s enough for me,” De Croo told reporters after the summit.

“Our intelligence services can detect this -- but now the question is how do we counter it,” he said. “We must not wait until the election results are in to act.”

Addressing leaders earlier, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola warned Russian attempts to “skew narratives and strengthen pro-Kremlin sentiment” ahead of June polls were no longer “just a threat, but a possibility that we must be ready to counter.”

“The European Parliament stands ready to support the Member States in pushing back and addressing any malign interference with our democratic decision-making processes in every way that it can,” she said.

Russian disinformation tactics identified by EU officials go beyond publishing outright false information. Mixing in nuggets of facts into false stories can confuse or mislead readers so that they distrust all news sources -- including reputable ones.

Prague has slapped sanctions on Voice of Europe and two pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politicians, Viktor Medvedchuk and Artem Marchevsky, in relation to the network’s activities.

The Greens grouping in the European Parliament and a Czech daily said the lawmakers under suspicion of voicing Russian propaganda on Voice of Europe came from Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland.

Czech and German media have named two candidates from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Petr Bystron and Maximilian Krah, as suspected of receiving Russian funds. Both have denied receiving any payments.

EU lawmakers face strict rules regarding independence and ethics and can face penalties -- financial and otherwise -- if they violate them.

The probe by Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office is looking into foreign individuals or organizations suspected of giving “donations, loans or advantages” to gain influence.

The European Parliament’s main political groups have called for the legislature to probe the alleged propaganda-peddling.

The Belgian and Czech leaders also appealed for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and the European Anti-Fraud Office to be able to prosecute such political meddling.

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