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Disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic: Opening statement by the HR/VP Josep Borrell at the European Parliament


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Thank you President [of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET), David McAllister],

Thank you very much for this opportunity to address the European Parliament and to explain the mandate, the work and the achievements of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in tackling disinformation. I would also like to use this meeting to clarify the circumstances leading to claims in the media that the European External Action Service has allegedly succumbed to external pressure and changed its assessment on foreign disinformation campaigns originating, amongst other State actors, from China.

I have to recognise that when I first used the words “battle of narratives” I could not expect that it was going to have such a big importance worldwide.

Let me start by stressing that our relations with China continue to be founded on the principles stated in the EU-China Strategic Outlook of March 2019, where it was said that we see China as a key partner, but also as a competitor and a systemic rival.

As regards disinformation, I want to reaffirm that the European External Action Service recognises foreign disinformation and manipulation. It often targets our values, our interests and it is a critical challenge to our open and democratic societies. In accordance with the mandate of the European Council, our services initially focussed on Russia’s disinformation campaigns, coming from State and non-State actors. This has progressively been enlarged to cover other geographical areas, namely the Southern Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans. The coronavirus pandemic has now taken this work to a new global dimension.

Intentional and coordinated disinformation campaigns should be treated as a hybrid threat to European and global security. We take considerable effort to raise awareness about them and help Member States to build long-term resilience. An important example of an efficient partnership to defend the foundations of democracy is our partnership with the European Parliament in protecting the 2019 European parliamentary elections.

Our fundamental values are at the heart of our response to disinformation. Freedom of speech and expression, as well as media pluralism, are core values to resilient democratic societies. And, this is the spirit of the European External Action Service’s work in implementing the Action Plan against Disinformation.

Since 2015, we have been working actively with other European Union institutions, Member States, international partners and third parties, to fight disinformation and counter global false narratives with transparent, timely and fact-based communication. We do that because we have a mandate. We have a specific mandate from Member States, which was confirmed recently, last December 2019 at the General Affairs Council. This includes the exposure of disinformation activities by foreign actors and sharing the latest insights with Member States via the Rapid Alert System.

We have to recognise that a real infodemic is accompanying the coronavirus pandemic. In view of that, we have started to follow closely and expose disinformation and misinformation campaigns in relation to the coronavirus, some of which aim at harming the European Union. We have an explicit tasking by the European leaders from 23 March in this regard.

How do we proceed? As part of our work, the Strategic Communications division within the European External Action Service has been producing regular Information Environment Assessments (IEAs), specifically related to the coronavirus pandemic. These reports are for limited and internal circulation, although we include, for example, the European Parliament’s Directorate General for Communications – which is the Parliament’s Point of Contact in the Rapid Alert System.

In addition, examples of disinformation and narratives around the coronavirus are reported to the global public through our website, which also hosts a unique public database with 8,000 disinformation cases, out of which more than 400 are directly linked to the coronavirus.

On this website we publish the regular public ‘Special Reports’ on disinformation related to coronavirus. These are short assessments of narratives and disinformation around the pandemic addressed to the general public. Three such public ‘Special reports’ have been published until now: 19 March, 1 April and 24 April. They were welcomed by media and fact-checkers, prompting an 800% increase in traffic to our website, with more than 10,000 daily readers. I hope that this discussion [at the European Parliament] will increase it even further.

Our latest Special Report paints a complex picture. It examines disinformation efforts and aggressive push of narratives by different international actors, including Russia and China, but also others such as the Syrian regime or the Iranian government.

First, there is a trend to portray Western democracies as weak, divided and unable to cope with the challenge, while those promoting such narratives try to present themselves as the most efficient and caring actors.

Second, disinformation and harmful narratives pose a severe potential risk to our citizens, including to their health and to their trust in public institutions. Let me be blunt – disinformation can kill. Disinformation can also have a material impact – just remember the 5G equipment towers burned in the Netherlands following claims that these 5G masts facilitate the spread of the virus.

As is the case for all of the European External Action Service’s publications, there are internal procedures to ensure the appropriate structure, quality and length of our products. Given the sensitive nature of the information, every claim is verified before it is used in public material, which often delays by some days its publication. However - and let me underline this - the content and the timing of the European External Action Service’s public assessments on disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic are determined by the European External Action Service, and the European External Action Service alone. We have not bowed to anyone.

Let me be clear: we are a diplomatic service. We maintain constant contact with representatives of third countries. This includes listening to their views on our policies and our assessments. But this cannot be presented as bowing to political pressure from outside. Especially on such crucial issues as disinformation at the time of this pandemic, where transparency is key.

Let me address, therefore, directly what I can call the main “accusation”, if I can refer to it in such terms. An accusation that, I believe, has led to our discussion today: that the European Union “bowed” to Chinese pressure, as formulated in an article by the New York Times.

After having been informed by the services about the way they proceeded in this case, I can assure you that no changes have been introduced to the report published last week to allay the concerns of a third party, in this case, China. The report very clearly points out State-sponsored disinformation campaigns and very specifically names the actors behind them – including China. There was no “watering down” of our findings, however uncomfortable they could be. Please check it personally, it is all online. You can compare the three reports, where we have progressively been refining our analysis and increased our understanding of how the different actors have been developing their messages and narratives.

Let me also make a point about the functioning of a diplomatic service and activities. As you know, calls to present complaints or to advise in favour of a given course of action are the daily bread of diplomacy. We, at the European Union, practice them constantly, as do all other international actors, even our closest partners. It would be wrong to consider this inappropriate. I can assure you that I am very much used to it.

Large international actors can accompany diplomatic demarches with a range of incentives and disincentives, which sometimes do not even need to be explicitly mentioned. We all bring things to the table, so that other decision makers take them into account. This is happening every day, from everybody, including us.

The European Union is an international player, and this is our added value. Most of our Member States, taken separately, would stand no chance at all when faced with larger powers. Unsettling us is not easy as long as our Member States stand together. Those that are currently fanning the idea that the European Union may be giving up on its interests or principles under pressure by third countries should read attentively the report we published on disinformation. They should read it, and then they will acknowledge that we are among the very few to dare refer to such facts and publicise them.

The choice of words used by those that criticise the European Union, saying “bowing to pressure”, has a clear historical resonance: it comes from Georges Macartney, a British diplomat who, in the XVIII century, went to China and failed due to his refusal to “kowtow” to the Emperor, which in Chinese means “to bow”. You see, now the word comes back. Working in the field of disinformation raises awareness regarding narratives, some of them rooted in the historical unconscious of the people who use it.

Let me finish by saying that the European External Action Service will strive to maintain its position as the leading institution collecting, analysing and challenging disinformation, including on the coronavirus. We hope to continue enjoying the European Parliament’s support for our work, the work of our StratCom (Strategic Communication Division), which includes three Task Forces: StratCom East, StratCom South and StratCom Western Balkans. We have plenty of work to do in exposing disinformation, supporting independent and free media and promoting European Union values, democracy, human rights and our interests across the globe with the help of public diplomacy.

A positive effect of this incident, dear members of the European Parliament, is that it has brought attention to the important work that the European External Action Service is doing to counter and expose disinformation. Allow me to invite all of you to check our website, where you will be able to appreciate the important work done and will hopefully also be able to look at these accusations against the European Union in a different light.

And now, I will be happy to answer your questions.

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Peter Stano
Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0)460 75 45 53