MEP proposes ‘revolving door’ rules for European elites who facilitate Russian interests

Russia uses ‘elite capture’ to pay off European politicians to soften their image abroad

The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was facing a preliminary investigation for influence peddling in connection with a €3m contract he signed with a Russian insurance company
The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was facing a preliminary investigation for influence peddling in connection with a €3m contract he signed with a Russian insurance company

Foreign governments are using “elite capture” and “investment capture” as the principal means for interference in European democracies, aside from the plethora of social media misinformation and disinformation.

“Across the EU you have key actors that are financed and supported by regimes hostile to the EU, they act as de facto ambassadors that want to undermine our democracies,” said S&D member Raphael Glucksmann, chair of the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union, including Disinformation (INGE), who delivered a special briefing on defending democracy from foreign interference over zoom.         

Glucksmann gave an overview of the threat foreign interference posed for the EU and his recently adopted report which was presented to parliament.

“We were wrong to think history had come to an end and that we no longer had enemies and that democracy would survive without being defended,” Glucksmann said.

Glucksmann explained elite capture as the process whereby politicians and high clearance civil servants who have been in charge of institutions, privy to classified information such as secrets, practices and knowledge of inner workings then go to work for hostile actors. “Many political actors of Europe are now working for Russian or Chinese companies who are not independent from those states and who work in their interest.”

Referencing the activities of the ex-president of France, Glucksmann said “when you see Nicolas Sarkozy making paid speeches at oligarchs party's to praise Vladimir Putin and mock his critics, that is disastrous for the EU’s credibility.”

Pulling no punches, Glucksmann said: “You see how many people who shaped Germany’s dependence on this gas now work at Gazprom? This creates a real democratic problem. We’re proposing a cooling-off period so people cannot leave a high political position and immediately go to work in a corporate post that is hostile to our democracy.”

Glucksmann also said capture by investment had been encouraged “by the naivete of EU policies for a long time”, whereby hostile states would be allowed to invest significant amounts of money into member states for infrastructure, or to finance local political organizations, NGOs and other entities beholden to them to work against the aims and values of the European Union.

“We have refugees who are dissidents against these regimes who are sometimes captured or killed on our own soil. You have a wide range of threats that makes a systemic threat, for a very long period we took things one at a time, sporadically responding.”

Now it was time to respond to systemic threats in a systematic way, Glucksmann said, whose report contains recommendations to “wake up European elites from this postmodern coma.”

Glucksman proposes sanctions and bans on foreign funding, on pressure of social actors, and to involve journalists, NGOs and whistleblowers as part of Europe’s defence against foreign interference.

“We cannot say that we are at peace with a regime that is attacking and interfering with our democracy; we are not totally at peace but we are not totally at war. We are in a state of grayness, and this is very dangerous for a democratic system. Our call is for our leaders to take this moment in history very seriously,” Glucksmann said of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The debate included Lutz Güllner, head of Strategic Communications at the European External Action Service (EEAS), and Delphine Colard, head of the spokesperson’s unit of the European Parliament, who were also present along with Constantinos Tsoutsoplides, head of the Greek EP office which was hosting the session, and Evangelos Ouzounis head of policy development and implementation at the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA).

Delphine Colard said that social media was clearly part of this disinformation game. “They have taken advertising money and power from traditional media. This is a clear threat to our democracy.”

Colard said that when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was no longer a matter of false narratives but “really dangerous theories that endangered public health. Such as Russian TV describing AstraZeneca vax as ‘monkey vaccines’ or Chinese outlets saying that patient zero was from the United States.”

Colard said the intent of this strategy was to send out the message that the EU and its parliament were either powerless or constantly interfering with other states. “There is no clear goal: whatever will cause chaos and distrust will be sponsored.”

Lutz Güllner stressed the importance in discerning between fake news or outrageous opinions so as not to conflate them with “a very coordinated and targeted campaign by a state.”

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