The Specter of Authoritarian Regimes is Haunting Europe - STUDY


This paper is the summary of the results of a two-year-long research project covering the foreign policy-related votes of Members of the European Parliament in the current, 9th European Parliamentary term, with a special focus on Central and Southeastern European countries (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria), to establish the potential openness of MEPs to authoritarian influence, and particularly to Russia and China. We further advanced the novel methodology created last year, to be able to depict the situation in the institution even more accurately. We hope our results will help better understand foreign policy decisions in the EU and identify how authoritarian regimes might be able to lobby for their interests in the unique decisionmaking system of the European Union.

This summary is based on votes cast by all MEPs who sat in the plenaries of the 9th European Parliament between 2 July 2019, the start of the term, and 20 May 2021. The analysis was aided by our local partners from Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria. We are grateful to all authors for their valuable contributions. We are also grateful to the National Endowment for Democracy for their support, without which this research would have been impossible.

Read the full study here (pdf, 7.98MB). The Executive Summary and the Politicy Recommendations sections are available below.


Executive Summary

  • Authoritarian influence in the European Union primarily targets individual member states, not European institutions. The vast majority of the Members of the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU institution, are highly supportive of strong European measures against autocratic interference, disinformation and human rights abuses. Hostile foreign states are therefore more likely to target individual member states and politicians, in order to have an impact on European foreign policy. 53% of the 680 MEPs we were able to categorize based on our criteria (casting the required number of votes) belong to the group of Integrationist Hawks, who both recommend taking a critical line on authoritarian regimes and seek to provide the EU with the means to put these policies into practice.
  • Not all populists are the same when it comes to stepping up against authoritarian countries. Integrationist Hawks not only support strong action against authoritarian regimes, but want to give the EU the means to implement these policies by making foreign policy decisions more effective.
    This is by far the largest group, with 359 MEPs (53% of all categorized representatives), mostly from the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe groups. Establishment-critical Hawks support a critical stance on authoritarian third states, but express concerns about proposed policies against disinformation or overarching European strategies. This group of 176 MEPs (26% of the total) includes mainly representatives from the Greens and the ECR, as well as key ruling parties from the CEE region, such as the PiS, ANO 2011 and Fidesz. Sovereignist Balancers are willing to condemn autocrats on a case-by-case basis. The group of 52 representatives (8% of the total), mainly from the ECR and ID – Vox, Fratelli d’Italia, Lega –, is highly critical of China, and even votes against Russian interests on occasion. However, they clearly reject EU action against disinformation or a more coordinated EU foreign policy. The 39 Hypocritical Pacifists (6% of the total) from GUE/NGL and ID, such as Syriza or the FPÖ, are almost never critical of Russia, but sometimes condemn actions by China or other authoritarian regimes. Eurosceptic Dictator-huggers, 54 MEPs (8% of the total), from ID and small communist parties, like the AfD and the National Rally, are the only group that seems to reject any and all forms of foreign policy cooperation or action against authoritarians.
  • Chinese soft and sharp power efforts have been relatively unsuccessful within the European Parliament. China’s image in the European Parliament is rather negative. China’s only open supporters sit in the far-left GUE/NGL Group. Even some far-right parties, such as Lega, are highly critical of Beijing, and vote with the EP mainstream. Thus, the Chinese regime is likely to rely on a combination of hard and sharp power, directed at the national and personal levels, to gain allies in Europe. This combination includes leveraging attempts exploiting China’s massive internal market and economic prowess, efforts to – at the very least – create the perception that Beijing offers advantages to states that support its interests, and benefits for local elites via economic cooperation and people-to-people contacts. Member states with the most to gain from cooperation with China are the most likely to back Chinese interests in the EU, while there are only a few actors that would support Beijing on ideological grounds. The nearly unanimous EP approval of freezing the ratification of the EU-China investment deal indicates that the Parliament is willing to act even if their actions have immediate, tangible consequences.
  • The Kremlin’s appeal is much broader, rooted in economic, structural and ideological factors. Ideologically, the Putin regime can appeal primarily to far-right political parties. More importantly, Russia has been highly successful in portraying itself as a superpower economically, militarily and politically, which ensures that both the far right and the far left see it as a counterweight to US influence, liberalism and western alliances, and a role model. This also may be a reason why some mainstream forces argue for a reset of the relationship with Russia. Russia’s financial and natural resources (e.g., Nord Stream 2) can also help disrupt EU unity on action against the Kremlin.
  • Authoritarian alliances with European political forces might not last forever. A very significant shift in the past year is that Lega changed its voting behavior on Russia substantially in late 2020. The formerly pro-Russian Jobbik’s sole MEP is highly critical of the Kremlin in the European Parliament. However, there are examples for the reverse of this trend, a party becoming more pro-Russian over time, too. This reverse trend was exhibited primarily by the Les Républicains party, whose Kremlin-critical Index score degraded considerably over the research period. These moves are often dictated by domestic political circumstances – e.g.; preparing to become a major coalition partner in the former case, or losing a party’s most pro-Western politicians to another force in the latter one.
  • Support for action to protect European values in third countries is strong, but sometimes depends on ideology. For instance, over 80% of representatives supported action against the Lukashenka and Assad regimes, while criticism against authoritarian practices in Chad, Haiti or
    Pakistan was supported by over 90% of MEPs. However, even MEPs in mainstream factions are prone to ideological bias: the center-left is more reluctant to condemn left-leaning regimes (e.g., Cuba), while the center-right is in some cases more likely to avoid criticizing states with right-wing governments or third countries’ policies that fit the agenda of rightist parties (e.g., tough stance on migration).
  • The fight against disinformation can be more contentious. The Greens and the ECR are considerably less likely to support EP proposals on disinformation than the other three mainstream caucuses. However, their reluctance is not necessarily the result of friendliness to authoritarian
    regimes. The Greens have often noted that they believe disinformation-related proposals fail to address certain key policy aspects and are afraid of unintended consequences on the freedom of speech. The ECR group has also argued that the freedom of speech should not be limited, but they were afraid specifically of certain viewpoints being censored simply because the mainstream does not agree with them, making their justification more ideological in nature. Both have highlighted the need to focus on media literacy training as a method to counter disinformation. Crucially, there was widespread support behind the Parliament’s opinion on the Digital Services Act, the EU’s flagship anti-disinformation, anti-hate speech initiative.
  • The formulation of a common EU foreign policy will prove to be the toughest challenge, due to the fact that the majority behind such initiatives is relatively slim. For instance, the report on the implementation of the European Union’s Common Foreign- and Security Policy in 2020 – advocating for qualified majority voting in the EU in international affairs in some cases – was approved by only approx. 50% of representatives casting a vote. The Greens and the ECR are more critical of the Parliament’s proposals on making European foreign policy more effective and overarching EU strategies vis-à-vis Africa or Asia, among others. The former, for example, expressed concerns about free trade deals and the militarization of EU foreign policy. The latter argued against moving towards qualified majority voting in the field of European foreign affairs or forcing third countries to adopt liberal democracy.
  • Some member states’ national delegations seem to be very open to supporting authoritarian practices, while others only tend to back authoritarian interests on some specific issues. Ireland, France, Cyprus and Greece are generally among the worst performers in all five policy areas analyzed, mostly due to their proportionally high number of far-right or far-left MEPs.
    • Hungary seems to be particularly vulnerable to China, mostly as a result of Fidesz’s efforts to gain economic benefits from cooperating with Beijing. In turn, the ruling party represents Beijing’s interests on the European level; e.g., by vetoing joint EU initiatives critical of China or becoming one of the few national parties in the EP to vote against freezing the ratification process of the EU-China investment agreement.
    • Italy is one of the most pro-Russian countries due to the relatively low Kremlin-critical Index scores of Lega, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and the Five Stars (M5S). Since all three are among the four most popular parties in recent Italian polls, this can be a cause for concern for European allies. It must be noted, however, the Lega’s voting behavior on Russia changed considerable in the last few months of the research period; the party became much more critical of the Kremlin.
    • Czechia and Italy are ranked low on the Counter-disinformation Index. In the latter case, Lega and FdI reject most EP proposals against disinformation. In Czechia, the main concern would be the Czech Pirates’ low score on this Index, although they have mainly policy-related concerns; their score is not the result of pro-authoritarian tendencies.
    • Lega and FdI are also vehemently opposed to a more united European foreign policy, including overarching strategies on Africa, Asia or the EU Security Union. In Czechia, there are several mainstream parties, such as ANO 2011, the ODS, and the Czech Pirate Party, which have abstained on several reports related to more effective EU action in international affairs.
  • As a result of their Eurosceptic or pro-authoritarian political platforms, far-right and far-left MEPs often repeat pro-Kremlin, pro-Chinese, or anti-US disinformation narratives in plenaries. The far-left GUE/NGL Group regularly cited US actions as the reason for their rejection of EP initiatives against Russia or China. They also submitted several amendments that fall in line with Moscow’s narratives: for instance, one declaring the Maidan revolution a western coup. ID members have often accused the European Union and the western mainstream establishment of spreading disinformation themselves or “warmongering” against Russia.
  • Personal contacts can be key for authoritarian regimes to extend influence. MEPs with close contacts with Chinese officials tend to perform weaker on our China-critical Index than their peers. While Jan Zahradil (Czechia) has a CCI score of 54, his three other colleagues from the Civic Democratic Party reached the maximum score of 100.
  • Even the most resilient have “red lines.” Financial or commercial interests can play a major role in weakening defenses against authoritarian influence. The vast majority of the German EPP delegation, for instance, rejected all EP calls to halt the construction of Nord Stream 2.
  • The European Union will presumably remain unable to follow actions proposed by a wide range of parliamentarians against Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes with unanimity voting in place in the Council. Authoritarian regimes can exert influence over European decisions via close relations with individual member states as a result of unanimous voting in the Foreign Affairs Council. Foreign policy vetoes and key political parties’ arguments against the European Union’s sanctions policy vis-á-vis authoritarian regimes may also limit the ambitions of European officials’ proposals, as they need to ensure that these proposals are acceptable to the Council.
  • The European Parliament will likely continue carving out an even greater role for itself in foreign policy. This is visible, for instance, in how MEPs pushed for further sanctions against members of the Belarusian regime, and their decision to freeze the ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Backed by a large majority of MEPs, the institutions could exert further pressure on the Council to follow its  recommendations. With more negotiations to reach a consensus, parliamentary majority could be broadened on issues regarding disinformation and common EU foreign policy initiatives as well, giving a louder voice to parliamentarians on these policy matters, too.

Policy Recommendations

  • Moving to qualified majority decisions in foreign policy should be a key topic in the Conference on the Future of the European Union. It is crucial to address the risks posed by the unanimity rule that cripples rapid and effective EU action in the frames of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), while providing a window to abuse national vetoes for political or economic purposes. Due to the multiple geopolitical challenges the EU is facing, the need for a sovereign and competent Union has become more pressing than ever. The “coalition of the willing” and the European Parliament should therefore ensure that the advantages of qualified majority voting (QMV) in foreign policy be broadly articulated during the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe. The participatory event could also serve the purpose of strengthening cooperation between cross-regional national foreign policies.
  • A solution can also be found without entering the “black hole” of treaty change. Should there be no political appetite for ordinary treaty revision, the currently existing toolkit may be rationalized and developed. The more systematic use of constructive/positive abstention could help overcome institutional deadlocks in the area of CFSP. The mechanism allows member states to abstain without vetoing EU action: while the respective country does not have to apply the decision, it has to accept that the agreement binds the European Union. Although it is less likely that constructive abstention would prevent countries from using their leverage in relation to their financial interests vis-à-vis China or Russia permanently, it may be a viable option for neutral countries in certain situations.
  • Countries willing to coordinate their foreign policy should form “coalitions of the willing” within the EU and involve reluctant states over time. Following the approach of the Juncker Commission, Brussels should push the Council to gradually use QMV at least in certain segments of common foreign policy, for instance when amending the list of EU-sanctioned individuals. This could be done by activating the so-called “passerelle clause,” allowing the alteration of legislative procedures without a treaty change, introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. While the provision could potentially establish the culture of QMV in the long run, it still requires a unanimous decision by EU governments. In the meantime, the “coalition of the willing” countries should start coordinating their position as groups within the EU, aiming to involve reluctant countries over time.
  • The CEE region could be an important resource in the fight against authoritarian regimes if western allies can win the hearts and minds of the local populations and elites, and help the democratization and anti-corruption efforts of these states. The West needs to show the region that they have more to gain from a strong commitment to western alliances than from cooperation with eastern autocrats.
  • Bottom-up solutions are key in fighting hostile electoral interference. When it comes to protecting elections from hostile influence, civil society organizations should propose bottom-up solutions instead of focusing only on top-down political actions. Naturally, bottom-up solutions should
    be supplemented by top-down efforts as well. An “Authoritarian Influence Unit” should be established within the Commission to identify and monitor the discrepancies in member states’ capacities to manage the challenges of their interactions with hostile external regimes. The multidisciplinary research platform attached to the research platform of the EU Commission (IDEA) should also provide tailor-made recommendations on the national implementation of the Digital Services Act once the EU approves the law. Increased support for investigative journalism and cross-border editorial cooperation would also be essential to better inform the public about these issues.
  • Transparency, especially lobbying rules, must be enforced on both the EU and national levels. Cutting off the financial channels of corrupt foreign influence should be a matter of utmost urgency. In order to deactivate authoritarian “Trojan Horses” in EU institutions, the enforcement of
    transparency regulations needs to be improved. Rules should be made against the ‘revolving door’ type of corruption: i.e., former senior level politicians signing up for jobs offered by Russia at state companies, such as Gazprom or Rosneft. Furthermore, better coordination is needed between EU institutions, since several European transparency registers are not publicly accessible or are poorly implemented on the national level. While drastic reforms are accepted on a large scale, national governments often fail to enforce them in practice.
  • The European market must be protected from investments by hostile third countries aiming to achieve diplomatic goals within the EU; the existing investment screening mechanism must be enforced consistently. EU institutions have to protect their financial interest from harmful foreign investment and hostile takeover in a more efficient way. Russia and China are schoolbook examples of weaponizing interdependence and using their economic leverage to achieve diplomatic and political goals in the EU. Thus, the EU should strive for a more clear-cut strategic plan within its FDI Regulation for Engagement with authoritarian regimes. While the current FDI screening mechanism could strengthen cooperation between the EU and national institutions, effective implementation and enforcement should be the main focus of attention. Circumventing the EU’s FDI screening-based recommendations should result in negative consequences to member states for future investments from within the EU. The EU should also use the rich rule of law toolkit at its disposal to monitor investments from suspected sources for malpractice such as monopolization, corruption and media capture.
  • The European Parliament should play a key role in democratic and transparent oversight in the context of the above-mentioned mechanisms. Furthermore, being the most hawkish EU institution with regards to foreign policy, the EP should firmly push the message that corruption is a gross human rights abuse; the EU’s Global Human Rights Mechanism should thus cover acts of significant corruption.
  • The United States should and could do more to push back against authoritarian foreign influence in the EU, and build alliances against China. In contrast to former President Trump’s approach to Europe, the Biden administration should support the EU in increasing its resilience, by paying more attention and committing resources to the European Union’s CFSP. Holding authoritarian regimes accountable for their human rights violations and protecting the integrity of the elections against hostile foreign interference should also be on the agenda of future US-EU coordination. Coordination should take place especially between Congress and the European Parliament to build support for coordinated action and refrain from unilateral decisions without European partners.
  • FDI-related corruption should be a key matter for Washington and Brussels. As far as FDI-related corruption is concerned, the Biden administration should create a link between the United States’ Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) and the European Commission’s screening authorities to develop regular intelligence sharing on this matter. The EU and the US should also impose a coordinated set of sanctions targeting relevant political and economic stakeholders, via coordinated criteria and announcements.

Read the full study here (pdf, 7.98MB).


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