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Dhaka Tribune

Espionage in the EU: Is the bloc ready to ward off spies?

EU officials are scrambling to get a handle on suspected Russian and Chinese espionage ahead of the June elections

Update : 26 Apr 2024, 05:22 PM

With just six weeks to go until European Parliament elections, fresh revelations of suspected espionage at the legislature will do little to instill public confidence. The last 18 months have seen a string of malign foreign influence scandals involving EU parliamentarians.

First, starting from December 2022, came bombshell accusations that parliamentarians and their staff had accepted cash for influence from Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania. Then, at the start of this year, investigative outlet The Insider alleged that Latvian lawmaker Tatjana Zdanoka had worked with Russian intelligence officials for years.

Only last month, Czech authorities sanctioned news outlet Voice of Europe, alleging that it was a Russian influence operation. Days later and in connection with the same revelations, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Russia had approached and paid members of the European Parliament (MEP) “to promote Russian propaganda.”

Finally, this week, German public prosecutors ordered the arrest of a German national identified as Jian G., working as an assistant to the far-right MEP Maximilian Krah of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — but according to investigators, also for Chinese intelligence services.

Krah himself has vehemently denied recent Czech and German media reports suggesting he took money to spread pro-Russian messages. On Wednesday, Krah — a frequent advocate for better relations with both Russia and China — said he would stay on as lead candidate for the AfD in the June 6-9 EU elections but that he would sack his assistant Jian G immediately. Hours later, German public prosecutors announced they had launched a preliminary investigation into Krah.

Bad look for democracy

Parliamentarians themselves are all too aware of how all this looks to voters. “This parliament is under a lot of urgency to clarify what has happened, and then to take consequences,” Terry Reintke, one of the two lead candidates for the Greens, told DW in Strasbourg.

“I believe that this investigation should be closed before the European elections, because European citizens deserve to know what is on the ballot paper,” Reintke said Tuesday.

According to a draft resolution seen by DW, lawmakers look poised to voice “outrage at the participation of members of the European Parliament in a pro-Russian media outlet, Voice of Europe, while Russia is leading its illegal war of aggression against Ukraine.”

“Russia has systematically maintained contacts with far-right and far-left parties, and other personalities and movements to gain support from institutional actors within the union in order to legitimize its illegal and criminal actions,” the draft statement, set to go to the vote on Thursday and subject to change or rejection, read.

Europe on high alert for espionage above all from Russia

It’s not just the European Parliament that is apparently of interest. This week alone, arrests of individuals suspected of spying for China were made in Germany and Britain. Beijing has dismissed the accusations as unfounded and politically motivated.

In the European Union, however, it is generally Russian espionage that is the greater concern. An analysis of cases of Europeans convicted of spying between 2010 and 2021 carried out by the Swedish Defense Research Agency found that Moscow was behind most of them.

“In times of geopolitical tension, the activity of different countries’ intelligence organizations increases,” Michael Jonsson, a senior researcher at the agency, said in the mid-2022 report.

In the wake of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, EU capitals booted out hundreds of Russian diplomats — 490 in the first 11 months of the conflict, according to an analysis by Elzbieta Kaca of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in January 2023. The majority of these were suspected of being intelligence operatives or their associates.

According to Kaca, while alleged Russian surveillance activities have been documented throughout the EU, they are “particularly active in countries where Nato infrastructure and the headquarters of international institutions are located.”

How well protected is the EU?

By this logic, Belgium, home to both most EU institutions and Nato headquarters, is a prime target. In the wake of the latest revelations involving the European Parliament, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has repeatedly underlined his country’s special responsibilities.

“Russian interference in electoral processes across Europe is happening as we speak. They intend to disrupt our democracies,” De Croo wrote on Twitter last week.

In a joint letter signed by De Croo and his Czech counterpart Peter Fiala, Belgium and the Czech Republic called, among other things, for the EU to consider closer coordination and new sanctions tools.

“It is the right time to establish a new EU restrictive measure regime to counter malign Russian activities.” The EU should also examine whether the recently created European Public Prosecutor’s Office could prosecute such interference, the two countries wrote.

As holder of the rotating EU presidency, Belgium also triggered a crisis mechanism on Wednesday calling for increased information-sharing among the member states. “It will serve as a platform bringing together all relevant information and all ongoing actions, with a view to supporting preparedness and a fast, coordinated response at EU level,” the Council of the EU said in a press release.

Do member states work well together?

While inter-EU cooperation has increased in recent years, particularly on counterterrorism, intelligence remains one of the policy areas that the 27 EU capitals closely guard as a domestic affair. 

As Elzbieta Kaca of PISM pointed out in her analysis, there is room for improvement. Many members states have “limited operational capacities” against espionage. Moreover, “their cooperation at the EU level is hampered by differences in threat perceptions and a lack of mutual trust.”

As one remedy, the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European Union External Action Service, could compile reports of incidents, she suggested.

Missed chances for real transparency reform?

When it comes to the European Parliament, the legislature is dependent on investigations by national authorities, as a spokesperson for the institution noted in a written statement sent to DW.

“Parliament takes seriously allegations that politicians in Europe are acting as amplifiers of the Kremlin’s propaganda and serve its interest or that China would resort to interference,” the spokesperson wrote, also pointing to a string of resolutions and a set of transparency reforms made in the wake of the Qatargate scandal.

Yet Nick Aiossa of anti-corruption organization Transparency International told DW he didn’t see parliament living up to its responsibility to protect itself with truly ambitious reforms.

“They need independent oversight, which they don’t have. They need monitoring of outside activities. They need more disclosures of what members are doing on the side and who’s paying them,” he said.

“One of the surest ways to counter malign influence in any democratic institution is having the most robust integrity measures on members of that institution and staff members,” he added.

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