EU looks to Australia for help on fighting foreign interference
21 Sep 2022|

Members of a European Parliament committee examining foreign interference and economic coercion are urging the creation by the world’s democracies of a permanent system to share anti-coercion practices and information on threats.

Australia would be a key part of such a network, Raphael Glucksmann, a French member of the EU Parliament, told The Strategist.

The delegation, tasked with identifying and measuring the threat Europe is facing and mapping out a response to it, was in Canberra yesterday for talks with ministers and government officials and a roundtable discussion with ASPI.

Glucksmann said the group was going to like-minded democracies confronted with the same kind of threats and seeing how they handled them. ‘Australia is at the forefront of this fight against foreign interference, so we came here to study your legislation, your practices, to understand how you are fighting foreign interference,’ he said.

That included ways to screen foreign investment in strategic infrastructure, dealing with disinformation and examining how universities are targeted.

Ideas from Australia would be used to strengthen a European model.

To this end, Australia had developed not just legislation, but a practice, Glucksmann said. ‘It’s very useful for us, is this coordination. It’s the fact that it’s a whole-of-government approach, and also to a certain extent a whole-of-society approach. And this is key for us. We don’t have the same institutions in Europe, and I think that’s something we should bring back to our countries and to the Europe Union in general.’

The delegation has briefed Australian representatives on measures already taken in Europe such as rules for screening foreign direct investment and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation system and Digital Markets Act.

For Europe, the main actor in foreign interference was Russia, while for Australia it was China, Glucksmann said.

‘We also have Chinese interference in Europe. Even if they don’t have the same strategy exactly, and the same methods, both are authoritarian regimes, aiming at undermining liberal democracies, so the fight is common.’

Both were practising state capture, or the ‘buying’ of former ministers and politicians and top bureaucrats through their purportedly private companies which were, in fact, part of the state system.

‘For Russia, the aim is clearly to polarise and destabilise European democracy,’ Glucksmann said. In Spain, for instance, that was attempted by Russia supporting opposite ends of the political spectrum, those seeking independence for Catalonia and nationalists in the Vox party.

‘It might look contradictory, unless you understand that their strategy is chaos, the Russian strategy; absolute chaos, that is the goal,’ said Glucksmann.

China was trying to increase its investment in critical infrastructure in several European countries.

‘It’s an increasingly aggressive actor, not to the level of Russia yet, but still quite worrying.’

China’s People’s Liberation Army was sending personnel to the best European universities to study science and technology so that they could add value to Chinese technology and its military effort, Glucksmann said. Europe didn’t want its universities to become dependent on the income from Chinese students as had happened in Australia.

Awareness was growing in Europe about the economic pressure Beijing applied to Australia over the past two years, he said. That understanding increased after China’s treatment of Lithuania over its relationship with Taiwan.

When Estonia was subjected to extensive cyberattacks by Russia, it warned that other European nations would be attacked in turn. ‘The Estonians told us to be careful because it’s a laboratory for what’s going on next, and nobody listened to them. What they told was the absolute truth and it came to other countries next.’

Glucksmann said the committee’s job was to be alert to the fact that the pressures applied to Australia and Lithuania could be applied to any other like-minded democracy and it was important for such countries to show solidarity.

‘Australian solidarity with Ukraine now, even if it’s far away, it’s showing us the path.’

Many in Europe did not take the foreign interference threat seriously until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine: ‘a full-scale war on European soil’.

The committee’s first report came out a few days after the war began, Glucksmann said. ‘It’s amazing how quickly our recommendations were taken seriously. I’m sure that without the invasion, we would have been like cats and dogs shouting in the emptiness.’

European nations were already subjected to a form of hybrid warfare from Russia with cyberattacks on hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic, attacks on public institutions, attempts to corrupt leaders and financing of political parties.

‘It’s not open war, we don’t have military confrontation, but it’s not peace either. It’s a state of conflict that should not, and will not, because of nuclear deterrence, materialise in an open military confrontation.’

This was part of an international conflict, Glucksmann said. ‘And the truth is that we didn’t want it; we even did everything we could not to accept and delayed and postponed, and found ways not to see what we had in front of us.’

Russia was applying pressure on European nations to reduce their support for Ukraine. Political parties that received Russian funding were now loudly supporting Putin’s war.

Russia had weakened the EU by supporting the Brexit campaign in the UK, Glucksmann said.

While they had different views on authoritarian systems, European nations had to be aware that they must never be fully dependent in any area on China.

Russia and China were out to change the international order and eliminate democracy.

‘We are facing the same threat,’ Glucksmann said. At an international level they set out to change the meaning of human rights. ‘They go inside our democracies, to use our problems, to exacerbate them and to wreak havoc in our democracy.’

Their goal was to ensure the democracies no longer functioned and gave way to authoritarian regimes.

In the days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s Xi Jinping and Putin demonstrated their common purpose by signing an agreement to work together.

‘Our response should be common, and it should be swift, because otherwise we are not winning this battle.’