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Pushing for an adequate response to online disinformation [European Parliament impact 2014-2019]

The power of the European Parliament

The only directly elected European Union (EU) institution; the European Parliament’s (EP) power and influence in pursuit of citizens’ interests have evolved significantly, transforming it into a full-fledged legislative body and forum of discussion and engagement at the heart of representative democracy, whose influence is felt in virtually all areas of EU activity.
What are then the European Parliament’s main powers?

What difference does the Parliament’s work make to how Europeans live their lives? This series highlights some practical examples of EP impact during the 2014-2019 legislative term.

EP POWERS BudgetThe visibility of disinformation as a tool to undermine democracies increased in the context of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. It gained notoriety as a global challenge during the the United States presidential election campaign in 2016, and in the context of the UK referendum on EU membership the same year. The EU has made active efforts to curb pro-Kremlin disinformation since 2015, when High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini set up a ‘StratCom Task Force’ to counter pro-Kremlin disinformation in the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood in response to the March 2015 European Council, which stressed the need to counter ‘Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns’.

The European Parliament has consistently and with broad political consensus been pushing the issue of a European response to disinformation to the top of the agenda, urging the EU to provide sufficient tools and resources with a view to responding adequately to the pressure on the information ecosystem in its Member States and its Neighbourhood. In its consistent push for a coordinated European response to disinformation and third-party propaganda, Parliament has used a mix of tools: non-legislative resolutions, hearings and its budgetary power. The latter was used particularly visibly in its support for the East StratCom Task Force. In its November 2016 resolution on strategic communication to counteract anti-EU propaganda by third parties, Parliament called for the StratCom Task Force to be turned into ‘a fully fledged unit within the EEAS […] with proper staffing and adequate budgetary resources, possibly by means of an additional dedicated budget line’. The European Parliament’s amendments to the EU budget for 2018 included the pilot project ‘StratCom Plus’, aiming to increase capacity to fact-check disinformation in and beyond the EU. Thanks to the Parliament’s proposal, the East StratCom TaskForce was allocated its first real budget of €1.1 million. In addition, €800 000 was allocated to the EEAS for strategic communication.

After a Parliament resolution of June 2017 called on the European Commission to look into the problem of fake news and to verify the possibility of legislative intervention, the Commission published a communication on online disinformation in April 2018. As proposed by the European Council in June 2018 – against the backdrop of an expected increase in disinformation campaigns in the context of the May 2019 European elections – the Commission and the EEAS published an action plan on 5 December 2018, which foresees an increase of resources allocated to counter-disinformation efforts, notably the StratCom Task Forces and the Hybrid Fusion Cell in the EEAS. The EEAS’s strategic communication budget to address disinformation and raise awareness is set to increase from €1.9 million in 2018 to €5 million in 2019. This budget is to be accompanied by a reinforcement of staff, with an expected increase of 50-55 staff member planned until 2020.

In its March 2019 recommendation to the Council and the VP/HR, the European Parliament urged all the Member States to second national experts to the StratCom teams. It called for strategic communication to become a matter of high priority in the EU, and for a greater focus on fighting propaganda aiming to ‘undermine the foundations and principles of European democracy, as well as the sovereignty of all Eastern Partnership countries’. Highlighting data misuse in the 2016 UK referendum, it called for legislation to safeguard future election campaigns from ‘undue influence’.

Growing soft power – EU foreign policy

a mapping of EP powers

Ever since 1979, Members of the European Parliament have aimed to boost the role of the institution in the EU’s foreign policy. These efforts have continued to increase since the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 1993. The EP is seen internationally as a ‘capable moral force with strong focus on strengthening human rights, supporting democracy and enhancing the rule of law worldwide’ (P. Bajtay). The Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought is one specific example of this: set up in 1988, it is awarded each year to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The EP’s comprehensive approach to democracy support is also part of this ‘soft-power’ approach to international relations. Launched in 2014, it includes election monitoring, mediation, as well as training of staff and members of non-EU parliaments. In addition to this, Parliament can convey messages in ways and through channels that are different from those employed by the EU’s traditional diplomatic players, for example, through its parliamentary networks.

The European Parliament has become a public forum both for representatives of partner countries and international organisations, as well as influential non-state actors. Parliamentarians pro-actively engage in inter-parliamentary delegations and missions to third countries, and are members of various joint parliamentary assemblies. Moreover, parties in different countries often share strong links by virtue of the fact that they belong to the same political family.

Parliament also enjoys treaty-based information and consultation rights, which allow its members to shape the EU’s external policies. The High Representative is invited regularly to consult Parliament on the main aspects and basic choices of the CFSP and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). MEPs can also address questions and make recommendations to the Council and the HR/VP. A major innovation in the EP’s powers to shape and control EU foreign policy has been MEPs’ exchanges of views with Heads of EU delegations after their appointment by the HR/VP, but prior to taking up their post in a third country. EU ambassadors inform Members about the country concerned and the EU priorities and objectives to be pursued in relations with the partner country. MEPs may use these opportunities to question the ambassadors, and provide advice and suggestions on the conduct of relations.

Read the complete study on ‘The power of the European Parliament: Examples of EP impact during the 2014-19 legislative term‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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