In Unity there is Strength: From Responding to Authoritarian Threats to Disinformation, Radan Kanev believes that ...


David Klotsonis (Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Democracy) interviews Radan Kanev, MEP from the European People’s Party (ЕPP) of the European Parliament.


How does authoritarian influence take place in the European Parliament? Through what channels and mechanisms, and who enables it?

Maybe I should start with the disclaimer that I don't think I have in-depth insight into that question; I don't feel very confident. Of course, we know such influences exist, but I can't say I see a lot of it in the work of the European Parliament. So I don't feel confident [talking] about any possible channels of influence. My general impression is that the European Parliament is usually quite hard on Russia and China, and on Turkey, by the way, as well. In fact, usually in its resolutions the Parliament tends to compensate [for] the weakness of the member States in this direction. So [the claim about channels and mechanisms] is more of a declarative populist stance in the Parliament. But we see much more weakness [vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes] when it comes to the Council or to the particular Member States and their policies.

Now, I will give a very obvious example just to make it clear. Normally, the German representatives in the EP are criticizing the NordStream 2 project, never mind center right or center left, maybe the greens above everybody else. But even the [German coalition] government parties in the European Parliament are usually voting for critical resolutions when it comes to NordStream 2; when [on] the other hand, the German government where those same two parties are in coalition is more or less inclined to go on with the project.

I understand your comparison between the European Parliament as a whole and other institutions; but when you look at either specific parties or specific countries within the EP, do you see any patterns with regards to authoritarian influence?

Yes. Yes, of course. One can easily see that when it comes, for example, to Russia, the two extreme groups in the Parliament, the far-left, and the far right are reluctant to vote for resolutions criticizing Russia. So, we can easily admit that, of course, these groups are politically representing parts of the population who have sympathies for the Kremlin regime, and then that most possibly there are political parties who have closer relations with the Russian government and maybe certain business ties with Russian companies. But still, it is an allegation I cannot support in any way. It is something which makes sense, but we certainly don't have any public information on that.

Of course, we had some public data on the Front National in France having strong relations with Russian officials and some financing by a Russian bank that was allegedly paid back – or maybe it wasn't. Then we have some information that there were ties between the Italian Lega and the governing party of the Russian regime.

We don't have such an obvious connection with any Chinese officials or government. Anyway, the Russian ruling party and political figures are still perceived as part of Europe in the more general picture, whereas, China is not – and no one [in the European Parliament] denies that China is an official, full authoritarian regime. So it's much more difficult to have official ties with the Chinese Communist Party. Frankly speaking, I don't know whether some leftist parties in Europe have official contacts with the Chinese Communist Party. I'm not aware. Maybe there are some public contacts, but I don't know.

Then you always have the soft, sometimes even clear sympathetic stance of the left in the European Parliament when it comes to Venezuela. It's not something they hide, they try to find (even in public speeches) some good examples in the way Venezuela and maybe even Bolivia under the Morales regime are governed.

Let's say there was a significant difference when it comes to Turkey, between the far right being very strongly opposed in public speeches against the Erdogan regime and the far left being generally sympathetic to [the] Turkish population. But lately the left is also very aggressive when it comes to the regime itself. And you can see softer positions on Erdogan mostly [in] national delegations. For example, Bulgarians [and] Hungarians tend to evade harsher resolutions of the Parliament on Turkey, either abstain or not be present during the voting. Of course, you have rather peculiar relations when it comes to anti-Russia resolutions, too. For example, the Bulgarian socialists, don't tend to vote together with the socialist group on these issues.

You briefly mentioned the NordStream 2 project earlier; the European Parliament recently passed another resolution to impose sanctions on Russia, which will most likely further delay the construction of NorthStream 2. What is your general view on the topic?

Well, my view is rather clear. I supported this vote. I have different reasons to be really clear on that. First of all, I believe that this energy diplomacy of Russia has to be generally checked in Europe. Then I'm a firm believer in the pan-European energy policy. I believe in the Energy Union, which has been a bit forgotten lately. It was a very big issue, five, six years ago, but not so much now. But I think it's a project that has to go on. And by the way, I think it's a project without which the European Green Deal might become void. We need it for the Green Deal perspective for sure. So from both [of] these perspectives, voting for sanctions that would at least delay NordStream 2 is an obvious decision for myself. Then in local politics in Bulgaria, I represent a party which is fighting against the energy dependence of Bulgaria on Russia. So even from an internal political perspective, I had the same imperative when voting.

What about TurkStream, or more generally, the two pipelines in relation to the EU’s transatlantic relations? Do you think transatlantic relations should be further fostered, and if so, how do you think that we can balance transatlanticism on one hand and the energy deals with Russia on the other?

When it comes to TurkStream, I really have a very strong national perspective on the issue. I think it is a rather harmful project for [the] Bulgarian energy system. It is extremely expensive. You cannot easily see the benefits for Bulgaria. It is strengthening and deepening our energy dependence, and it is, in many ways, preventing the full integration of the Bulgarian gas system with the European [Union].

I will give an example. We have been building an interconnection pipeline with Greece for 10 years now. We have declared that it's close to ready at least five times and it is still nowhere near completion. On the other hand, we invested a huge amount of money in the very speedy development of TurkStream, which is maybe beneficial for Serbia, though I am not sure of that too. But I really do not see the benefits for Bulgaria and I do not see how this huge public spending will be in any way paid back in the near future, or even in the not-so-near future.

On the other hand, we always speak about the [need for] diversification of energy supplies and especially of gas supplies. It can obviously come in the present situation mostly through the Greek interconnection pipeline and the LNG supplies through Greek ports. But I don't see how we can do both [TurkStream and diversification] at the same time. Obviously, it is not a real priority, it is a priority in name only, but it is not a real political priority for Bulgaria. That is something you can easily see.

Moving on to the recent EU - China trade deal, which still has to go through the European Parliament, what are your views on the topic? And, perhaps more specifically, how should the EU balance between its business interest with China and the protection of human rights?

I wouldn't say it's only [about the] protection of human rights. Of course, on one hand you have the business interest i.e. the free trade with what has become the biggest trading nation in the world. Europe has always been a free trade champion, maybe because it's kind of a loose Confederation, even not calling itself [a] Confederation. But [it’s a] loose union of many States with rather different trading interests.

So, the EU is basically unable to sustain its economy based on its internal market only. Obviously either China or the US are much more prepared for such kind of international balance. We are unprepared and then we have countries within the EU who are totally unprepared to accept any such policy – the Netherlands being only the most vocal champion, but far from the only one. So we don't have much of an alternative to free trade and that's understandable for everybody. On the other hand, we have the human rights issue, but then we also have the medical supply issue, which became really very evident during the COVID pandemic. But frankly speaking, we didn't need the COVID pandemic to understand [that] there is a problem with medical supplies in Europe.

Then we have the issue with the loss of aluminum production, just as an example for many industries, especially in metallurgy. And then we have the whole Green Deal package, which is more or less economically impossible without a carbon border adjustment mechanism. And I'm not sure we have the proper means at this moment to implement it in the China trade deal.

So we have very significant questions pending on that. And my opinion is that, although not radically, but Europe must prepare itself, we must prepare ourselves for an economy a bit more strongly-based on internal consumption, on internal trade within the Union. We'd have the greenwashing problem with Turkey. As a Bulgarian, I see the very obvious risk of losing whole industrial clusters to Turkey and maybe even the energy production itself, if we don't have the adjustment mechanism. But when it comes to national security, relying so heavily on direct supply from Turkey is not a good idea. From a national security point of view, either during the Erdogan regime, or if we face serious instability in Turkey after the Erdogan era in 10 or 20 years, the Balkan region should not depend, for example, on electricity supply from Turkey, just because it is cheaper.

So we have many, many questions. Of course, China is a big issue, but I think it's a more general policy question. How dependent on foreign supplies the European economy should be. Then speaking about human rights, you know, I'm trying not to dive into wishful thinking very often. I think that neither Europe nor the United States have the means to change the Chinese government attitude to human rights, or even to implement our proper understanding of human rights into Chinese government culture (especially [if this is done] only through trade policy).  Anyway, either speaking for China and the human rights issue, or more generally for authoritarian regimes with strong economies and important players on the world market, or speaking about Green Deal priorities and policies and climate more generally in all these spheres I'm deeply convinced myself that Europe and the US still very much need each other much more than most people on both continents understand.

What is your overall view of the extent to which disinformation is a problem in European and national politics at the moment?

Disinformation is a huge problem. You can see it very clearly now when the COVID vaccination started in Europe, and you can see that it’s not a regional problem only. And it's not a problem dividing poor countries from wealthy countries. For example, you have very similar figures in Bulgaria and France when it comes to anti-vaccination propaganda. You have other topics of propaganda, which show Eastern Europe to be much more vulnerable, but it's not necessarily the case and on many issues you can see how vulnerable Italy is, for example. To give a very interesting example, as you know, in the last parliamentary elections in Romania, a populist party (very much based on conspiracy theories with very strong disinformation propaganda channels to build itself and to develop it itself) won a very surprising [share of the] vote. They were expected [to come] below the threshold and they got somewhere around 9% of the vote. What is extremely interesting is that they are the first or second political force in all the sections where the Romanian diaspora in Italy voted. So, it obviously proves that these people were extremely open to these disinformation channels that already exist in the Italian web, not in the Romanian one. They were obviously also very thoroughly targeted as Italian residents.

So, we have a very serious problem. But I'm not among the people who think that we have any obvious solutions. You know, I love reading Umberto Ecco’s Prague Cemetery, for example, and reflecting on disinformation when the printed press became popular and affordable for the mass public for the first time. I think we are living in just another era like the early paper print era or the early TV time. And I think that natural mechanisms are the only tangible solution for online based disinformation.

I don't trust governments always have the means to do something. I know it's not a popular answer, and many people are trying to find a solution, but I'm the type of politician who sometimes prefers to say, well, we don't have a political solution to that [particular] problem.

In that case, do you believe that it can best be tackled at the EU level, as opposed to the national level?

No, I would say that would be even worse. Even worse, because if you have a strong EU mechanism for preventing fake news on the web, it would be a huge precursor for new propaganda channels in Eastern Europe saying that there is a Western European censorship. And this would be a legitimate criticism, to a certain extent, because we will have certain mechanisms. So when someone says that Brussels is imposing censorship, it will be a trustworthy statement. And together with this trustworthy statement, new disinformation and conspiracy theories will arise.

So, as I already said, I'm very much afraid that political tackling of technology challenges is not really effective. Okay, having a platform stating which media is good media and a trustworthy media, and which one isn't sounds very attractive, but I think it's a kind of publicity for the untrustworthy media. You are in fact blacklisting certain sources of information, [but in doing so] you're advertising them before a certain public.

Looking towards Europeanization, to what extent does the goal of EU unity take precedence over national interests?

Personally, I easily define myself as a European Federalist. I think we need more Europe in many ways, and I think the easiest way to build trust in Europe and the European project is through democracy itself.

We need more direct means of electing representative bodies. For example, the election of the last European Commission was a typical bad example of how trust is lost. I am from the EPP, I'm rather on the right side of the center; still, I think that since it was impossible for Weber to be elected, because he simply did not have the support to go through either the Council or the Parliament, it should have been Timmermans – because he ran for the position, he had people voting for him in one way or another.

And of course, for the EPP, it's better to have Von der Leyen because she is a politician with EPP, coming from the strongest national EPP party. But still, the way we got to it is undemocratic; it builds on this bureaucratic image of the Union. Of course, the process of European legislation is hardly understandable by anybody. It is not understandable by legal practitioners in many European countries, let alone the general public. So we certainly need more clarity on that to build more strength.

But more politically speaking – not about the process, but about policy itself – I'm sure we need a more coherent European energy market and a more coherent European labor market, which is something I'm working very much on. And of course, it's very divisive; it's very difficult; you obviously have different national interests. But still, at the end of the day, it’s in everyone's benefit. We need certain levels of European security, both internal security and defense. And that's more than obvious because any particular European state is already a political dwarf in defense dimensions in the world we're living in. We have a stronger common trade policy and that's something we already discussed in brief. And then what really happens I think, with all reservations we might have on this, the COVID crisis did push Europe towards a stronger integration.

And the ongoing integration of health policies is very important in that sense because health is first a very national issue; it's a very intimate issue. And it's a very unfortunate example that the common European vaccination process started so poorly – it gave a bad sign. But in fact, I think what happened was good. The fact that there was the European procurement of vaccines was very good because people who are criticizing now don't even dare to imagine what would have happened if we were competing: the bigger states against the smaller ones and the wealthier against the poorer. Of course, Von der Leyen was very much criticized for being cheap in the negotiations and trying to get a better price. But on the other hand, what would be the situation if we were competing amongst countries and bidding over our neighbors. That would have been a nightmare at the end of the day, and it would have left at least one third of Europe hardly affording to buy any vaccines. Yes, we have a delay now, but from the point of view of trusting the vaccines and fighting disinformation, I think it was the right decision. So, right decisions are not always very easy ones and not always instantly effective – in fact, the opposite is true: the instantly effective decisions are very often the wrong ones in the long run. So I think that we'll have good news on vaccination in the months to come and generally we might have the health policy issues as a mighty trigger of European integration. I hope so.

I would like for a moment to go back to something that you mentioned in the very beginning – why do you think that there is a persistent gap between the foreign policy provision of the Parliament and the European Council, or the Commission. For instance, weeks after the European Parliament voted for a resolution calling for sanctions against Chinese officials and the crackdown against Hong Kong, the Commission struck an investment deal with China. I mean, those can be seen as contradictory or not, but in any case, there is clearly a gap. And I'm wondering why you think that this gap exists, or how we can make sense of it.

I don't have a clear answer, and I think I simply lack the experience on European level to really answer that question. I'm rather new in the Parliament, it's my first term and then half of the term we passed working remotely, which is not the same, especially in terms of getting experience.

I can see the gap very clearly. I can see something which is not a secret – that the foreign policy services of the Commission are looking with a certain disdain on the AFET committee activities in the Parliament. In their consideration, the AFET committee is more personal or party-level populism, rather than real foreign policy; they don’t see the Parliament as very helpful in that sense. On the other hand, from the Parliament’s point of view, the Commission foreign policy efforts are weak and overdependent on different national interests. So both in Mogherini’s and Borrell’s terms we don't see the strong European policy that we would like to see. On the other hand, I think it is no less important that when it comes to foreign policy, the European Parliament is very much dependent on the resolution literally [inaudible] and it's always a combination of populism and wishful thinking and far from policy. From that point of view, I understand the diplomatic services of the Commission on the member States. You don't make diplomacy through resolutions. And we have like three or four every week.

So how can we make EU foreign policy more effective, more united?

I think above everything else, it takes time. Then, usually such consolidation on foreign policy would become reality when there is a significant challenge from outside. This is the way a common foreign policy is built or destroyed.

We don't have such a challenge right now. Perceiving, for example, Russia's meddling in Eastern Europe as a fundamental challenge is wrong. Russia is obviously playing games, doing tricks, but not trying to disintegrate European foreign policy – it's not a major challenge. I think that the Russians are balancing this really well: they are trying not to impose a challenge. Because they know they cannot face the response, which they are very much afraid of. So from this point of view, I wouldn't expect them to be much more aggressive than what we see.

Would you say that national interests are your main consideration when informing your voting behavior at the European Parliament?

Generally, not. I tend to follow, as I said, my rather Federalist convictions when I vote and to have the idea of a common European interest in mind. I try to work in my parliamentary group for the European interest to prevail over national tensions, which arise very often. However, there are questions and votes and issues which are so important for national political perspectives that you don't have any other choice than to follow national interests – to define and follow national interests. However, defining national interest can take many forms. I don't think that I understand national interests the same way as Bulgarian socialists, for example. And you can see from our votes: very often we vote differently, however, convicted that we follow the national interest.

This interview is also availble in Bulgarian, here.

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