David Klotsonis (Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Democracy) interviews Andrey Kovatchev, MEP from the European People’s Party (ЕPP) of the European Parliament.
Just to kick things off – do you believe that there is such a thing as authoritarian influence in the European parliament and, if so, how does it manifest itself?
First of all, all members of the European Parliament are elected by the citizens. As such, they have the same rights in the European Parliament as representatives do in national parliaments. Through the ballot boxes, society is therefore reflected in the elected members of the European parliament. So, this authoritarian influence is, first of all, seen during the national electoral processes in the member states and is then reflected in the European Parliament. Therefore, the phenomenon of third country influence that we are dealing with (from Russia or China) in our political and public life in the member States is a critical issue, which can be found in all institutions, precisely because we are representatives of the people.
I am a member of a special committee formed by the European Parliament on disinformation and interference in the political life of the member States. This committee has been collecting opinions from different stakeholders, institutes, political analysts and scientists to understand what the best way to tackle authoritarian influence in the EU is, how we, as a democratic union, can tackle it in the best way. Here, it is worth mentioning that this is related to a range of issues, such as the freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and the freedom of media. There are many paths for the dissemination of fake news that allow for the interference of authoritarian countries that try to manipulate public opinion through misleading information.
Coming back to your question, the people who elect members of the European Parliament [with positive sentiments towards the Kremlin or Beijing] are more vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation and, as a result, elect representatives who are also easily manipulated, or politically willing to follow the path of third country/authoritarian interests. And we also often see this in the current parliamentary cycle. It is actually somewhat funny to see this visually, when the vote is conducted in Strasbourg, how the extreme left and extreme right vote in the same way on many issues related to Russia.
You mentioned disinformation, which is something that I would like to come back to later, but before we do so, I'd like to address the last point you brought up regarding the far left and far right and how their views often converge when it comes to Kremlin-related resolutions. Why do you think that is, and also, do you see any other patterns, for example, with regards to specific countries, as opposed to ideologies?
I think there is a very logical explanation that accounts for this phenomenon. First of all, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia found a new kind of ideology to govern: they swapped Marxism-Leninism for conservative Christianity and tradition. The mix is actually quite interesting – pretending to be conservative Christian Orthodox and protecting traditional values on one hand, while nurturing a nostalgia for the Soviet Union and Lenin on the other. So, this ideological mix is a powerful magnet for both extremes: the extreme right, which is pretending to be the savior against decadent liberals, and on the left side of the spectrum, there are the remaining Western-style communists, which are by default following everything that comes from the Kremlin. So, in that way, both extremes find issues or topics which are very attractive for them, and they sell this to their voters as well – sometimes even by attacking Western democracy as something ‘bad’ in the process.
Is there perhaps something more than Soviet nostalgia and traditional Christian values that makes Russia an appealing ally for those parties despite being at opposite poles of the political spectrum?
To a certain extent we all share responsibility in this regard – both center-left and center-right parties. In the face of economic hardship, alienation and disillusionment, people become desperate and thereby much more prone to fall victims to actors who offer a quick and easy solution. But quick and easy solutions are always wrong.
We learn. If there is one thing that we have learned from history, it is that it is always much simpler to blame someone else for your problems. In this case, it is easy to blame the government or the so-called establishment for low wages and economic precarity; it is easy to say "the government is against us". That is where the conspiracies come in, and this is where big social media platforms also become relevant. Today, it is so easy to spread disinformation and it travels very fast, faster than ever before in human history. Disinformation campaigns have been used throughout human history – one can recall, for instance, the siege of Troy – but now disinformation can spread throughout the whole globe within seconds, reaching millions of people. This is why it's so difficult to counteract, especially for democratic countries.
For authoritarian countries, it is easy. They can forbid, they can close, they can censor. But for democrats, it is very difficult because there needs to be a discussion around the issue; all angles need to be examined; human rights have to be upheld; freedom of expression has to be respected, and the best compromise must be found before we proceed with legislation and regulation through technical instruments. When we talk about internet platforms, for example, we need to consider removing illegal or harmful content which is linked also to disinformation or terrorism, or to any other kind of criminal issues.
Let's delve into the topic of disinformation then; the Digital Services Act recently got through the first step in the EU parliament. I would like to begin by asking you – how involved were you in the drafting of the act?
Let me be clear, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act is a proposal by the European Commission. In October last year, we voted on our initial report, which is the position of the parliament on how the proposal should look. But now that the Commission sent us their proposal in December, this is where the real work on the legislation of both acts begins. So, yes, in the respective commissions of the European Parliament, my colleagues and I are currently discussing this. I am a member of the Internal Market Committee, the Committee on Disinformation, the Foreign Interference and Intervention Committee, the AFET committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. In all these committees, it is a very relevant topic.
If you're asking me about the non-legislative initial report from October, yes, together with my colleagues, I was also involved in the drafting it. To put it simply, the main rationale is that everything that is already illegal and harmful offline should be also illegal online and therefore subject to being removed. Another important aspect has to do with distinguishing between very large internet platforms with over 40 or 45 million users and smaller platforms. This is where it gets a bit tricky because we are going to impose certain regulations on the big platforms that will not apply to the smaller platforms. But many specialists and experts are saying that especially when it comes to terrorism and disinformation, smaller platforms are often the place where such content is disseminated. But to answer your question, again, the real legislative work in the parliament is only starting now.
Who has taken a leading role in formulating this legislative work?
As in the case of all legislation in the European Union, unfortunately or not, the European Parliament has no right to initiate it. The Commission is responsible for that. They sent us the proposal and we are now going to amend it and propose our draft. So, hopefully, in collaboration with the Council and the Commission, we will adopt this legislation until the end of 2021, or maybe the beginning of 2022.
Do you believe that disinformation can best be tackled at the EU-level, or the national-level?
Here I believe that the answer is very clear: at the EU-level. The European Union is based on the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that it is more efficient to take a decision on the level at which the impact will be the greatest, the most efficient. So, it is very clear that in our global internet and social media society it is not effective to make such changes on a country-by-country basis. We need EU-wide legislation on this topic – only this way we can hope to be effective. But even this is likely not enough. The next step would be to talk with our partners worldwide: to the United States, Canada, etc. We need to ensure that we do not have digital paradises akin to tax havens, especially given all the clever ways that technology can be used to circumvent borders using, for instance, VPNs. So, all in all, this is a global phenomenon and, as such, the fight against disinformation also needs to be global.
Some politicians have expressed concerns over EU-level regulations arguing that a fight against disinformation could easily be perceived as censorship, thereby playing into the hands of those who create and spread conspiracy theories in the first place. What are your views on this?
Indeed, I already mentioned how difficult it is for democratic countries to find the right balance between protecting the freedom of expression, the freedom of media and the freedom of thought, while at the same time limiting disinformation. We are not trying to create a Ministry of Truth; we don't like Orwellian scenarios. We want a society where every citizen has the critical ability to filter information. To achieve this, on one side we need education and on the other side need further investment in objective journalism and fact-checking. This is very important. Ideally, every piece of information that is published should be fact-checked.
Let me give you an example. Russia has stated that they applied for the ECDC at the European medical agency for the approval of their vaccine, Sputnik V. The EU medical agency, however, publicly stated that no such application has been received. So, the moment there is information coming out, there should be an immediate answer – is it true or is it not true? This was obviously an easy example because it's very clear: if the ECDC says "there is no application", then there is no application. But there are other situations that are more ambiguous. For instance, one of the most dangerous situations is when a piece of information contains true elements, as well as false ones. Then you have half-truth, half-manipulation. That is usually when public opinion is being manipulated, in a way that the Kremlin, or Beijing, are trying to do.
Since you mentioned Russia, lets address the topic of energy and more specifically the Russian gas streams, that is, NordStream 2 and TurkStream. The European parliament recently passed another resolution to impose sanctions on Russia, which will likely further delay the construction of NordStream 2 – what is your general view on the topic?
My general view is that the European Union should become less and less dependent on one [energy] source. That means that we should not increase our dependence on Russia; we should not decrease the stability and security of Ukraine, and we should not contribute to the Russian budget with our money. This is why NordStream 2 makes absolutely no sense, not from a single logical perspective. From an energy point of view, Germany can easily find alternative sources. Then there is, of course, the geopolitical issue with Poland and the Baltic States. Ideally, we [the EU] would have normal relations with the Russian Federation, built on win-win situations. But, unfortunately, Russia is at the moment showing that they prefer to have a more aggressive approach against the European Union.
So, I disagree with the NorthStream 2 project. For me, it makes no sense, and it also makes no sense that some German colleagues are saying that this is purely a business project. It is not just a business project. I mean, from a business point of view it also does not seem very beneficial, but crucially and undeniably, from a geopolitical perspective it is nonsense.
I will also say one word about TurkStream. For me, it is a totally different issue, precisely because there is more potential for diversification. For instance, there is the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline, gas and oil from Turkmenistan, or even Qatar potentially. The Eastern Mediterranean has a lot of potential for gas, for instance from Cyprus and Israel and also the LNG terminals in Alexandroupolis. There are a lot of possibilities for diversification of the pipeline. If you consider only the Russia-Turkey phase, you are right. But if you talk about the pipe connections in general in South Europe coming from different sources, this can be a gain for the diversification of the [energy] sources. We are now talking hypothetically, but if we talk about the Green New Deal and the future of renewable and so on, we are going to the environmental topics as well.
Turning for a moment Westwards, in the wake of the Trump presidency, do you believe that we should further foster Transatlantic relations?
That is for sure. We, as a country, as a current government and me personally, strongly support very close Transatlantic cooperation, also through NATO, and with the Biden administration we should continue to ensure stability and security in the Black Sea region. We see what Russia is doing with the militarization of Crimea.
I would also like to point out that we, from Bulgaria, would like to normalize our relations with Turkey. Turkey is not by default in Russian hands – that should be very clear. So, we have our problems when it comes to Cyprus, or Greece, or the human rights situation, the media situation. We also have a problem in Syria, but we need to think how big of a problem it is for Turkey to have two and a half or three million refugees from Syria on their territory. This is a huge problem for them and I hope that 2021 will be the year of some kind of normalization of the relations with Turkey. But they need to do their part as well, especially in terms of finding a solution with Cyprus.
Are you referring to normalization at the national, or European level?
At the European level, of course, since at the national level we actually have very good relations with Turkey. Our border is very calm. We have no problems on the border regarding drugs and there is almost zero migration thanks to the good cooperation between the authorities in Sophia and Ankara. So, I am in fact referring to the normalization of relations between the EU and Turkey, as well as NATO and Turkey. I think it is in our interest, particularly in relation to the Turko-Russian rapprochement that you mentioned earlier. I don't believe that Turkey necessarily prefers to partner up with Russia as opposed to Europe, but they feel like they do not have the choice – after all, if the EU antagonizes them, they are forced to find another partner in the region, albeit one that would otherwise not be their first choice.
Moving on to the recent EU-China trade deal, what are your general impressions?
We have had a lot of discussion about this in the AFET committee. We had a meeting and I posted a few questions. But we cannot make any compromises, for instance, on our relations with Taiwan. I am in favor of a BIA with Taiwan. Our trade deal with China cannot come at the expense of our trade deal with Taiwan. Additionally, the situation with Hong Kong, with the Uyghurs, the forced labor.
It is clear that many people, myself included, do not think that it is possible to change the Chinese communist regime merely through a trade treaty. It is not realistic. But the question is: do we want to strengthen the Communist regime with this treaty, or do we want to have a win-win situation without having to compromise on basic human rights? This is where the issue of Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Uyghurs, Tibet, become relevant in my eyes and the eyes of many of my colleagues. As you might know, the parliament is quite critical in that regard – and we are only given two options: accept or decline. We can also give feedback, of course, but I do not know when that will be, maybe this year or next year. But there will be a lot of discussion, for sure.
By the way, one word on critical materials. We need to make sure that a situation like the one we are going through now with the pandemic, whereby most of the active components of antibiotics are produced in China and India, does not reproduce itself. We need to diversify the places where such materials are produced, so that we do not have to depend on China for critical medical equipment and medicine.
You talked about the difficulty of balancing human rights issues and business interests in China. But in the European Parliament, some politicians are more pragmatic than others. Does the EU have the clout to stand up to China in this way?
Yes, if we are united. When we are united, we are not so small. We have over half a billion people and we are an attractive market for many. This is also why many people are trying to come to Europe. Europe, human rights and democracy are attractive. So, if we are united, we can set the standards, for example labor standards. I am a member of the International Trade Committee and I am a big supporter of the trade agreements that we have with Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Canada etc. We impose our high technical and labor standards and make sure that human rights are respected. So, if we have many such trade agreements between the EU and third countries, then even China would need to follow along given that a big part of the world has trade relations with us. That would mean that even China would need to increase their standards to reach the benchmark. This is how I think we can achieve something: if the Chinese authorities see that this is a trend and that they can continue to sell. But it is difficult because they are very influential in Africa at the moment and their involvement is very straight-forward. Our support in that region is always conditional on the respect of human rights and other things – China does not care about those things when they invest.
Just to make sure that I understand, are you saying that through trade deals we would be able to change the practices of the communist regime in some ways, and if so, do you think that this trade deal is such an opportunity?
No, not like this. We cannot change the communist regime through trade deals, that is not what I am saying. What I meant is that through many trade deals, over time, and not only with China, this can happen. The WTO is not very functional at the moment, so we can replace its functions by pursuing many bilateral trade agreements, although this also has its challenges, as we have seen with Vietnam. But by setting high trade standards, not only technical standards, but also labor standards, we can move forward.
For example, if a mobile phone is produced somewhere, and we know that it is produced by people in a prison, with forced child-labor, then we are not going to make business with them. They will not be able to sell their product – not just to us, but also to Australia, New Zealand etc. Then, there will be a very limited market to sell this product. This is the only thing that I think we can achieve. But to change the communist regime, I do not think that is possible. If you think about Reagan, he was able to achieve the transformation of the Soviet Union by setting a high expenditure for military equipment, for example, with his Star Wars defense. I do not know if something similar could be done with China so as to prevent them from investing, but I think it is too late.
What you're describing is more of a long-term vision, but in the short term, for example looking at the EU-China trade deal at hand, what do you think should be the position of the EU given that its bargaining power is still limited?
The devil is in the details. In the next few months, we need to evaluate the whole deal very carefully. I have not read the deal yet; it is many hundreds of pages and that does not even include the expert hearings. At the end of the day, we need to say 'yes' or 'no' in the parliament, but we are not there yet. So maybe in December or January in one year, we are going to vote on this. And in this one year, we need to make our judgment to decide whether this trade agreement is bringing us advantages or making us even more dependent. I do not want to give you a 'yes' or 'no' answer at the moment because I am also at the beginning of this process. So, we need to see all the details and to make the final judgment. In general, we are critical, so we need to have a close look at the details, but I cannot give you a definitive answer at the moment.
As our interview is coming to an end, I would like to zoom out for a moment. Looking towards the Europeanisation process, to what extent do you think that the goal of EU unity takes precedence over national interests at the moment?
Well, we had the opportunity to address this a couple of times already. If we are united, we will win. We will have a stronger voice. If we are divided, we will be weak. And nobody will care about the opinion of the European Union, about the opinion of the so-called high representative and so on. I do not even remember what the position is called; it is a strange name. You know, we have given this name to the position of the foreign affairs minister of the European Union because the UK did not like the idea of an EU Foreign Ministry. In any case, we need a strong and united foreign policy in the European Union to be taken seriously. Now we are not taken very seriously. Even the position of the German foreign minister or the French one is much stronger than the position of the high representative. In this globalized world, if we want to be taken seriously in any international conflict, we have to change some things. For example, if you look at the Israel-Palestine issue, we are the biggest donor to the Palestinian government in the world. In fact, Palestinian institutions are functioning almost exclusively thanks to EU money. But at the same time, we have nothing to say because our voice is not being heard. Only the US is being heard. Going back to your question, I am a strong supporter of Europeanisation, of more common, united politics. This does not mean that Brussels needs to have 'superpower' status, of course, I am only talking about specific issues for integration, security, migration, border security, topics related to the common market and, again, the basic principle of subsidiarity.
You mentioned that our foreign policy needs to be more united – why do you think that there is a persistent gap between the foreign policy vision of the European parliament and the European Council or the Commission?
Now we are touching on a rather philosophical issue. The Quai d'Orsay in France or Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin are century-old foreign institutes, which have a long tradition and they are well-known worldwide. On the other hand, you have this new construct, the European Union. So, naturally, these old institutions are not so willing to transfer their power to a common European Foreign Ministry. I am very much in favor of a European Foreign Ministry – not a high representative – it should be a foreign minister. Now without the UK, maybe it will be easier to do this, time will tell.
But this is the problem. We do not want someone who could replace the Foreign Ministry of France, or Germany, or Spain, or Italy. This is the big dilemma: what are we going to do in the future? Are we going to give more instruments to the foreign minister of Europe, or do we want to have a weak Foreign Ministry of Europe and stronger German, French Foreign Ministry?
Given this conundrum, how can we make EU foreign policy more united and more effective?
I think the global circumstances will push us in that direction, just like what is happening now with the pandemic. Until last year, nobody wanted to talk about a common health policy, for instance. It was considered a strictly national issue. Now the global pandemic has shown us that united we can achieve more than we would individually. I think the same will happen with foreign policy, when we are faced with bigger players such as the US and Russia. They take decisions much faster. In authoritarian regimes like China, when a decision is made, it is immediately executed with no discussion. No one is asking the parliament, or the public for their opinion. Nobody questions it. We are at the other extreme; we are very slow. We go on for months, countries often fail to find an agreement, and in the end, we end up without a coherent foreign policy. But I think that global circumstances in the future, and even now will push us to be more effective and more united.
Before we end, I would like to ask you a double question. Firstly, what would you say is the balance between national considerations and EU strategy within the European Parliament in general and, secondly, what would you say is your personal balance when making decisions?
First of all, it is worth noting that in the European Parliament, we are not organized based on nationality, but based on our political affiliations. This means that we have common political lines, for example, the EPP, Socialist, etc. But on specific topics, there is always a national priority. This means that sometimes a country's delegation will vote against its EP party line on a given issue. But I do not think this is a problem if this occurs in a limited range of issues. If, on the other hand, it is related to basic pro-European politics, then It is a problem.
And normally, at least in our group [the EPP] we are united on most things, especially the ones regarding the goals of the European Union in general. But there are some national issues – I remember, for example, in my case this was the North-Macedonia/Skopje issue – where national interest takes priority.
This interview is also available in Bulgarian here.
About the project
Supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.