European Policy Blueprint for Countering Authoritarian Interference in Democracies

June 25, 2019
In recent years, European democracy has been shaken by internal and external events.

In recent years, European democracy has been shaken by internal and external events. European nations and institutions are confronting numerous challenges like migration, nationalist extremism, and discontent with the political status quo. They also face challenges from a revanchist Russia that seeks to reestablish influence it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union and to weaken democracy across the continent, and from a rising China that aims to export its model of authoritarianism across the globe. The European Union and NATO have expanded their membership, bringing more European citizens into the Euro-Atlantic community, and yet a polarized European society remains ever more susceptible to interference from foreign authoritarian regimes’ attempts to undermine Europe’s stability, unity, and prosperity

The overall security threat to Europe has evolved. Europe’s adversaries are less likely to use conventional military power to fight today’s geopolitical battles and more likely to employ asymmetric tools to compensate for conventional military weaknesses—cyberattacks, information operations, malign financial influence, the subversion of political and social organizations, and strategic economic coercion. Regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia amplify divisive narratives to undermine public trust in democracy using a combination of state-controlled media outlets, government-sponsored online trolls masquerading as European citizens, and a network of sympathetic social media agitators. Authoritarian actors bring money into Europe licitly and illicitly to corrupt European leaders and peddle their influence in European politics and society. They use state assets as leverage to create economic dependencies that further authoritarian interests in Europe and advance their corroding influence across the continent. Finally, these regimes disrupt democracies’ ability to govern and function by conducting cyberattacks against government institutions, businesses, and media.

Elections are a prime target of authoritarian attacks on democracy. The Russian government has interfered in elections and referendums in several European nations, and initial assessments of the May 2019 European Parliament elections revealed that Russian disinformation campaigns “covered a broad range of topics” to attack the EU, amplify localized polarizing content to influence public opinion, and attempt to suppress voter turnout.[1] But undermining elections is not the only goal. Authoritarian incursions into the daily lives of Europeans have increased since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, and they will grow by an order of magnitude as technologies evolve and more actors adopt these tools. By using these tools to exploit existing cleavages in democratic societies and vulnerabilities in democratic governments, authoritarian regimes are trying to weaken and distract Europe and its transatlantic partners in the United States and Canada from their regional and global responsibilities, and to diminish confidence in democracy as a viable form of government.

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[1] High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, “Report on the Implementation of the Action Plan Against Disinformation,” European Commission, June 14, 2019