3 February 2017
Dr. Borislav Mavrov
There is hardly any doubt that 2017 will be a crucial year for the defense of the development of the European project, a year full of even bigger challenges and hardships. A clear evidence in this regard is the letter from the President of the European Council Donald Tusk to the 27 heads of state and government of the EU Member States on the future of the EU right before the summit meeting in Malta. This letter is a turning point not only in the discourse of the European leaders, but also regarding the clear understanding of the need to take assertive and spectacular steps that would change the collective emotions and revive the aspiration to raise European integration to the next level. The letter outlines groups of threats in a structured way, admits to committed mistakes, determines the way forward with a clear vision for the beginning, the history, the lessons learnt.
We hear similar discourses ever more often, not only because the tone of the discussion is already set, but also because a crucial battle is about to take place for the present and the future of the EU. This battle will be staged on multiple fronts, against tough counterparts, with non-traditional weapons and will comprise a multitude of smaller battles. Three of these battles are forthcoming – the elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The stakes in each of these elections are clear and significant – the ascent into power of explicit or implicit opponents of the EU may have destabilizing effects on a founding Member State, effects that are difficult to control and with a possible exit domino effect.
In the Netherlands, in the eve of the elections which are scheduled to take place in mid-March 2017, the populist Geert Wilders seems like the clear winner. And despite his growing popularity, the common expectations show that his “Party of Freedom” will eventually remain in isolation in the future parliament and will not receive access to government. France is faced with even more unclear prospects, where opinion polls predict that Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen’s participation in the second round is inevitable. The campaign is hard to predict after the attack against her strongest opponent so far – Francois Fillon (Republican Party) who is slowly being substituted by a new favourite – the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. In the election autumn in Germany all attacks will inevitably be directed towards Angela Merkel, who is running for her fourth mandate, along with the recent President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, candidate of the SDP. Merkel will enter into a fierce battle against the leader of the extreme anti-European party “Alternative for Germany”, Frauke Petry.
Not long ago, (21 January this year) the leaders of the so called anti-European parties gathered in the German city of Koblenz to announce in a single voice: “Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, and tomorrow a new Europe…we are the start of a patriotic “Spring of Europe“[i].
The line that connects the dots among all these leaders is clear to outline – the support which these political formations receive by the Russian Federation, through Kremlin’s strongest weapon in recent times – disinformation.
There should be no doubt that disinformation campaigns organized in Member States are a part of a well-coordinated strategy. The aim is to use disinformation through various communication channels, and primarily social media, to weaken and destabilize certain countries. Existing contradictions are used, new contradictions are being artificially engineered, explicit false messages are multiplied, most often targeted against a particular individual, a political group/party or government. Another strategy includes the dissemination of an enormous volume of contradictory messages with the aim to persuade the audience that the existing versions regarding a given event or fact are just so many that it is impossible to ascertain what the entire truth is.[ii] Thus, the ultimate aim is to instill mistrust which weakens the willingness of society to counteract.
To counter this trend, persuasive rhetoric, faith in values and referring to the past will hardly suffice. Discourses coming solely from the “centre” will not be sufficient, nor tailoring measures by the Council, Parliament, Commission. Creating structures such as the East StratCom Team have relatively limited (although increasing) resource and toolbox for impact, their functions are analytical and preventive and cannot propose effective counter-measures. These separate battles will need national energy, correct and timely identifying of threats and corresponding resources to realize these counteractive measures. This requires daily efforts and a clear commitment by the governments of the Member States. The decision of the Dutch government to count ballots by hand instead of processing them electronically during the forthcoming general elections seems like a measure of such rank. It is without a doubt the result of the concern, voiced by Dutch Foreign Minister, Mr. Ronald Plasterk, that external “state actors may try to reap benefits from the influence over the political decisions and public opinion in the Netherlands”. Here, however, we should not only discuss isolated measures, but an entire system of measures and policies. Add to this the strong democratic reflex of these European societies and the timely occurring perception of self-protection, and the mission seems possible. The presidential elections in Austria already evidenced the viability of such a scenario.
[i] The words belong to Geert Wilders, President of the Dutch Freedom Party.
[ii] These are part of the conclusions of the report of the East StratCom Team. The team is established on the basis of European Council Decision of March 2015. and functions since September 2015, within the framework of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, European External Action Service.
*The text is published at https://offnews.bg/