Rigged elections, foreign influence, political gridlock, and rampant cyber breaches – the European Union is in crisis. For perhaps the first time in its storied history, it’s beginning to look like the EU’s brightest days are behind it. To understand how the EU arrived at this precarious position, it’s instructive to look back in time and examine its two consistent antagonists – Russia and China. The examples that follow are merely two of the overt instances amongst countless detected and undetected covert attempts to weaken and disintegrate the European Union.
23 June 2016: The United Kingdom braced for a vote that would change the face of the country. It was a historic day, years in the making – Brexit. As British voters woke to head to the polls, halfway around the world, a sophisticated, wide-ranging operation to weaken the European Union was finally coming to fruition. According to data released by Twitter, Russian internet trolls sent more than 10 million tweets in an effort to spread disinformation and discord in the United Kingdom, including a day-long blitz on the day of the Brexit vote.
11 November 2019: COSCO Shipping, a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, announced it would spend €600 million euros ($660 million USD) to purchase a majority 51 percent stake in the Greek port of Piraeus. The investment fell under the umbrella of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which the Chinese government has called, “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.” COSCO said it plans to turn the Piraeus port into the biggest commercial harbor in Europe with mandatory investments of €300 million euros by 2022. For the debt-ridden Greek government, it was a financial lifeline.
At first glance, these two events – Russian meddling in British politics, and China purchasing a Greek port, seem to have little in common. However, these two distinct events underscore a shared goal of the Chinese and Russian governments – namely, to weaken the EU and extend their influence into the Eurozone. Both countries stand to benefit from a weaker European Union and, more broadly speaking, from the shift away from the traditional powers: Great Britain, France, and Germany.
To understand how the Russians are undermining the very democratic principles that undergird the EU, we must first recognize Russia’s swift transition from the Cold War era to today. Since the Cold War, the Russian economy has struggled to keep pace with the unified European market. The Great Recession of 2007-2008 dealt a blow to global oil markets, which swept away much of Russia’s sovereign wealth. The recent period of economic distress from 2014-2017 has been dubbed the ‘Russian financial crisis’ and has exacerbated Russia’s financial struggles. The crisis was largely the result of the sharp devaluation of the Russian ruble, beginning in the second half of 2014, in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Russia’s economy has slowly deteriorated since the Cold War, which has limited the flexibility of the Kremlin to compete with the EU on military spending and contend for international influence.
As a result, led by President Vladimir Putin, Russia has revamped its international engagement strategy since the days of the Cold War. During the 60s, the Russians went toe to toe with the U.S. and its Western allies on military spending, seeking to match its Western foes on military might. However, the dismal Russian economy can no longer support the expensive investments needed for its military arsenal to come close to challenging the hegemonic NATO alliance. As a result, the Russians have been forced to change tactics in order to compete with the economically superior Western powers. “The challenges the Kremlin is posing are distinctly 21st-century ones. Feeling itself relatively weak, the Kremlin has systematically use[d] the principles of liberal democracies against them in what [is called] the weaponization of information, culture and money, [which are] vital parts of the Kremlin’s concept of ‘non-linear war.’ Unlike in the Cold War, when Soviets largely supported leftist groups, a fluid approach to ideology now allows the Kremlin to simultaneously back far-left and far-right movements, greens, anti-globalists and financial elites. The aim is to exacerbate divides and create an echo chamber of Kremlin support.” The Kremlin uses the Western idea of freedom of information to inject disinformation into society. The goal is not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility, but instead to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods. This nimble approach enables Russia to effectively radicalize both sides of the political aisle and win, regardless of the outcome of individual elections.
In regard to the Brexit vote, most political analysts agree that Russia ultimately preferred the Vote Leave campaign to Vote Stay. However, the unsettling truth is that, no matter which side collected more votes, the Russians won regardless. They successfully sowed the seeds of division and mistrust across Britain, much like in the United States leading up to the 2016 presidential election. This democratic discord is now threatening to cripple the U.K. from within. With a hard exit from the EU looking more and more like a distinct possibility, Scotland and Northern Ireland are considering the possibility of withdrawing from the U.K. and reuniting with the EU. While neither Scotland’s nor Northern Ireland’s path is preordained, what is nearly certain is that the independence movements in both regions will roil British politics for some time to come. The political reverberations of these movements, compounded by other post-Brexit domestic challenges, will keep the country self-absorbed and absent from the world stage for several more years. According to Foreign Affairs, “the ultimate impact of Brexit for the United Kingdom will come not from some sort of economic catastrophe that empties store shelves; it will come through national solipsism and the gradual relegation of a former hegemon to a decidedly provincial middle power,” in other words, exactly what Russia hoped for.
If we take a step back and view the EU as an institution, its roots remain relatively strong. The standard-bearers of further EU integration, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, are still in place and pushing integration and unity to the fore. However, it’s the movement around the edges that should worry ‘the establishment,’ or the pro-EU bloc. In May 2019, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled A Europe More Divided. The article described the results of the European Union’s recent parliamentary elections, saying “[t]he anti-EU right did well, but so did the greens on the left. While nationalists [also] gained votes, pro-EU parties will still hold two-thirds of the seats in Brussels.” This electoral result eerily resembles the wording used by Peter Pomerantsev in his study looking at Russian strategy regarding Europe. As Pomerantsev so eloquently described, the Kremlin is fluid in its support for leftist and rightist groups. Their end goal is to further weaken the European Union by slowly siphoning votes away from the pro-EU parties and driving polarization in the halls of Brussels. The danger this strategy poses to Western democracies is this type of campaign is subtle and complex, making it difficult for media sources to first understand, and then report on to European citizens. One vote here, or one anti-EU Member of Parliament elected there, hardly makes for a groundbreaking story or soaring ratings. The Russians are content with small wins along the margins because it allows them to remain in the shadows and continue to slowly increase the drumbeat of the disintegration movement within the EU.
The issue the Chinese present is quite different, yet equally as sophisticated and cunning as the Russians. China has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the ‘long peace,’ or the period lasting from the end of World War II until today. Since opening up to foreign trade and investment, and implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with its real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging 9.5 percent through 2018. A pace described by the World Bank as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” Such growth has enabled China, on average, to double its GDP every eight years and helped raise an estimated 800 million people out of poverty. As a result of its relatively newfound wealth, China had become increasingly ambitious in its attempts to extend its influence across the globe. High-profile initiatives, such as Made in China 2025, a plan announced in 2015 to upgrade and modernize Chinese manufacturing in ten key sectors through extensive government assistance, has raised eyebrows in capitals around the world. These measures have increasingly raised concerns that China intends to use industrial policies to decrease the country’s reliance on foreign technology and eventually dominate global markets.
For many years, trade between the European bloc and China grew, however, since 2016 trade has steadily declined. This drop can be attributed to two separate but related movements. First, Beijing is increasingly curbing private outward investment to maintain its stock of foreign reserves and to direct capital to domestic use amid a period of economic slowdown. Second, it has become increasingly evident that Europe is unhappy with the lack of reciprocity and the joint ventures forced upon European firms doing business in China, often involving forced technology transfers. “China ranks 59th out of the 62 countries evaluated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in terms of openness to FDI.” Almost half of companies surveyed in 2018 by the European Chamber of Commerce in China said they missed out on business opportunities due to regulatory barriers or market access restrictions, and they expected obstacles to increase during the next five years. For years, China has operated an opaque market in which loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is rewarded handsomely. It has purposely made life difficult for foreign firms to enter its domestic market in a bid to promote and nurture national champions that one day can rival the powerhouse European and American firms.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the linchpin in its bid for influence across Europe. This is why COSCO’s purchase of the Greek port caused tremors that reverberated across the Eurozone. China, unlike Russia, can leverage its economic might to quite literally acquire influence wherever it sees fit. With the announcement of the COSCO deal, China will now have a powerful voice inside Greece which it can use to subtly pressure Brussels on a host of issues, potentially ranging from Hong Kong’s independence to Chinese cyber attacks on European corporations. For years, similar to the Russians, the Chinese danced around the edges – largely shrouded by shadows. However, China’s sustained economic growth has emboldened the CCP of late and given party leaders the confidence to pursue their ambitious goals. First with Greek deal, and then three short years later China announced its biggest prize yet – Italy. In March 2019, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with China on the BRI. Italy was the first, and so far the only G-7 country to sign on, providing a shot of much-needed legitimacy to the Chinese initiative. European officials have warned that Italy is making a mistake and overlooking the downsides of doing business with Beijing. Criticism of the Belt and Road projects has been extensive. In some countries, “the Chinese infrastructure projects have been beset by cost overruns,” and although China helps to finance the projects, in smaller countries, the setup can leave governments owing enormous sums to Beijing relative to their GDP. Above all, some experts are concerned China is building an infrastructure empire as a way to upend security and the economic world order.
It is quite evident that Russia and China have different means to a common end. However, one area of focus is surprisingly consistent between the two authoritarian countries – 5G. 5G is a fifth-generation wireless system that promises to be up to 100 times faster than 4G and will power the ‘Internet of Things,’ including telemedicine and autonomous vehicles. The country that leads the world in the adoption of 5G technology will have a distinct technological, economic, and national security advantage over other countries. The Chinese government has supported the deployment of 5G infrastructure as part of its ambitious Made in China 2025 plan. It aims to subsidize the deployment of 5G domestically, improve its technology, and become a leading supplier of telecommunications equipment to the world. A major part of this plan is the Chinese technology company Huawei. “Aided greatly by subsidies from the Chinese government, Huawei now holds a 28% share of the global telecom equipment market. Huawei’s products are deployed in more than 170 countries and serve more than a third of the world’s population.” The Communist party, through Huawei, has effectively subsidized the buildout of 5G networks across Europe and has actively courted European governments to secure contracts. This expensive effort is part of its plan to control critical infrastructure for years to come and establish influential relationships across Europe.
Conversely, Russia cannot afford to subsidize an entire industry, instead, it has returned to its tried and true playbook of misinformation, to delay and hamper the rollout of 5G in an attempt to play catch-up. During the current pandemic caused by COVID-19, Russia has actively spread conspiracy theories linking the rollout of 5G with the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Back in May 2019, the New York Times published an exposé piece laying bare the danger posed by the Russian disinformation campaign. The Times reported “[t]he Russian network RT America aired the segment, titled A Dangerous Experiment on Humanity, in covering what its guest experts call 5G’s dire health threats. U.S. intelligence agencies [had previously] identified the network as a principal meddler in the 2016 presidential election. Now, it is linking 5G signals to brain cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors, and Alzheimer’s disease – claims that lack scientific support.” Nobody, including Russia, could have foreseen the current pandemic, but Russia has pounced on the opportunity to push its agenda. “Across Britain, more than 30 acts of arson and vandalism have taken place against wireless towers and other telecom gear” in April 2020. Russia would like to turn the European populace against 5G to buy the Kremlin time as it scrambles to develop its own domestic technology it will use to compete with the rest of the world. Moscow’s goal is to destabilize the West by undermining trust in democratic leaders, institutions, and political life. To that end, the 5G conspiracies are yet another example of the Kremlin pushing its agency to destabilize European democracy and counter its technological dominance.
The European Union has been slow to respond to provocations and abuses by the Chinese and Russians. The United States, under the Trump administration, has taken the most hawkish stance towards China, which has helped shift the conversation in Europe. Over the past year, Europe has dramatically sharpened its political stance against China, slamming Beijing as a “systematic rival” for the first time. In a departure from its often-dovish approach to Beijing, the EU called China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” This hardened tone in Brussels has manifested itself with a Franco-German plan to develop a more robust European industrial strategy, bolstering European champions in sectors ranging from telecoms to heavy engineering. Europe’s counter to Russian aggression also similarly sharpened. Recently, British politicians have blasted the 5G conspiracy claims and summoned technology firms including Facebook, Google, and Vodafone in an attempt to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat the dangerous theories that have now spilled over into the real world.
European authorities must recognize the existential threat China and Russia pose to European democracy. Only then will Europe’s leaders be willing to make the politically difficult decisions needed. Prescriptions may include cutting off Chinese foreign investment or limiting freedom of speech on social networks to combat disinformation. Government officials will need to coordinate their response with private sector leaders to protect online mediums from misinformation and to promote the development of next-generation technology that can be used in place of the suspect Chinese equipment. The EU must reaffirm its belief in its founding principles and implement stringent procedures and safeguards to protect some of the smaller, economically weaker European states from falling prey to China’s economic opportunism. The EU should reach out to global institutions – including NATO – to bolster its defenses against Russian cyberthreats. Its elections must be secured and online forums protected.
The world is at a crossroads. The lack of American leadership in the face of a global pandemic has given both the Russians and Chinese an unprecedented opportunity to showcase their influence on the international stage. Both have loudly publicized their efforts to distribute vital healthcare equipment across Europe. China has unsurprisingly been incredibly generous with Greece and Italy in particular, two countries that make up a crucial component of its BRI. The European Union needs to take decisive action to combat the sophistication of the Russian and Chinese campaigns. Brussels must unite and establish a unified European front that prioritizes the ideals of democracy. European leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron must continue to stand for integration and fight against the further disintegration of the Union. They must make the case that Europe is healthier, stronger, and freer when its member-states stand together to face the threat posed by Russia and China. This is a challenging time, with division threatening the European Union from the within and foreign regimes threatening the very ideals of democracy. It is time for Europe to stand as one, to unite, and to fight this ideological war – the fate of democracy is at stake.