European Parliament: the primary source of immunity to foreign authoritarian influence?
Despite previous fears of a populist and authoritarian shift in the European parliament before the EP elections, there is a vast majority in the EP for pushing back against authoritarian regimes and their efforts to corrupt democracies throughout the world. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a relatively small but highly devout group of supporters in the EP, mostly from the left- and right-wing fringes. The radical left-wing GUE/NGL and the radical right-wing ID are the most fervent supporters of Russia, while the EPP proved to be the most critical of Moscow among EP groups. Italian MEPs have the most pro-Kremlin voting patterns, closely followed by Greek parliamentarians. MEPs of Die Linke and Podemos supported Russia’s interests the most. These are some of the results of an in-depth quantitative research on EP votes concerning the rule of law and human rights in third countries, and Russian authoritarian influence in Europe.[i] The research was conducted by Political Capital Institute and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.
The impact of authoritarian regimes on the democratic world is an increasing concern in the European Union as well. The vice president of Ursula von der Leyen’s “Geopolitical Commission”, Vera Jurova has repeatedly argued that there is a need for a European Democracy Action Plan that will help institutionalize the pushback from EU institutions against malign foreign influence – especially in the form of disinformation.
However, the malign economic and political effects of authoritarian regimes on EU Member States, candidate countries and third countries is an emerging issue in the European Parliament too. Our analysis on the previous EP cycle showed that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has a small (about 20% of MEPs), but strongly committed supporter base in the European Union based on a bizarre alliance of the radical left and the radical right.
This analysis, showing early and preliminary results from a more extensive study that is going to be published later this year, assesses the “sharp power” influence of Russia and other authoritarian actors in the current European Parliament based on a quantitative analysis of the votes cast by MEPs.[ii]
To analyse MEPs’ attitudes to value-based foreign policy in general, we selected a wide range of resolutions passed by the European Parliament. These (1) condemn the actions of authoritarian regimes, particularly hostile Russian activities in and outside of the EU; (2) support European values in third countries; and (3) support the European Union’s engagement in territories subject to influence by several great powers.[iii]
Table 1. Votes selected for the analysis
Large majority against authoritarian practices
Despite previous fears of a populist and authoritarian shift in the European parliament before the EP elections, the overall results of the votes from the first few months of the 9th parliamentary cycle indicate that there is still a vast EP majority for pushing back against authoritarian domestic and foreign policy practices such as distorting historical narratives, oppressing dissenting opinions, putting opposition figures in prison, etc (see Chart 1).
Given that these were all resolutions that are initiated by mainstream groups, the “for” votes indicate the condemnation of authoritarian malpractices, while the “against” votes are supportive of these authoritarian regimes. There is one exception: in the case of amendment 11 to the resolution on foreign electoral interference [hereinafter: Special Committee Amendment], the “for” vote is indicative of support for authoritarian regimes and the “against” vote represents the opposite.
Chart 1: Voting results in selected resolutions
If we take a look at the votes of the groups as well, they clearly show that four parliamentary groups, namely the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe (RE) and the Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) broadly supported resolutions condemning infringements of human rights and the rule of law in third countries, and stood up against the interference of authoritarian regimes – particularly Russia – in European internal affairs.
The Green group is a bit more divided. Most MEPs often voted in line with the groups mentioned above. At the same time, many Green MEPs were reluctant to approve resolutions on the human rights situation and government crackdowns in Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia.
Russia’s lucky break?
The resolutions concerning the Russian Federation show an even sharper picture (See Chart 2). The European Parliament held six roll-call votes on the topic in the period under review.[iv] An overwhelming majority of MEPS condemned Russia’s efforts to distort the history of WWII (practically denying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), urged some response against the foreign electoral interference and disinformation in European elections (with Russia named in the text), and criticized Russia for illegally prosecuting Lithuanian judges for their investigation into the persons responsible for the January 1991 Soviet military intervention in Vilnius.
Chart 2: Support of selected Russia-related resolutions by parliamentary groups
Two amendments proved to be more controversial. The Magnitsky Amendment, inserting a reference to the Magnitsky Act into the text on political prisoners in Russia, passed with only 54% of the vote. Considering that Russia strongly advocates for repealing the American legislation with the same name and that Moscow is willing to go to considerable lengths to have it annulled, referring to Sergei Magnitsky’s name in the context of a potential EU human rights sanctions regime is a clear message to Russia.
The Special Committee Amendment passed with only a slim majority. As a result, the European Parliament will not consider setting up a special committee on foreign electoral interference. Although other EP committees are already dealing with these topics, having such a special committee could have focused the Parliament’s relevant efforts and amplify its voice on such issues. It must be noted that it is not only pro-Russian views or concerns about including controversial statements that can serve as justification for voting in line with perceived Russian interests in these two cases – some greens thought, for example, that mentioning only the name of Magnitsky would be inappropriate in this situation. MEPs who opposed the idea of a special EP committee focusing on foreign electoral interference cannot necessarily be labelled as pro-Russian either (e.g. MEPs of Polish ruling PiS party).
But one thing was absolutely common in all the cases above: the vast majority of MEPs from the far-right ID, the far-left Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) and non-attached (NI) groups voted in line with the Kremlin’s interests.
Russia’s most devout “soldiers” in the EP
We created a scale for measuring the behavior of MEPs in questions related to Russia. A vote in line with the Kremlin’s perceived interests is worth minus one point, a vote helping to counter Moscow’s activities is worth a point, and an abstention/did not vote is worth 0. The sum of MEPs’ points awarded for votes on the six Russia-related roll-call votes gives them a score on our “Kremlin-Critical Index” (KCI). Given that we took into account six Russia-related decisions, the potential KCI score ranges from -6 (strongly pro-Kremlin) to 6 (strongly Kremlin-critical). We calculated a KCI for all parliamentary groups and national parties as well. Looking at individual MEPs’ KCI scores, the vast majority of them have a score of 4-6, confirming that there is a broad mainstream that is supportive towards taking meaningful action against Russian authoritarian activities domestically and internationally.
Where can we find the most enthusiastic supporters of Putin’s regime? Most on the radical left and some on the radical right. Looking at individual MEPs (See Table 2), four members of the German Die Linke, and one member from the Belgian Workers’ Party, the Communist Party of Portugal and Podemos each received -6 on the KCI, which means they supported positions favoring the Kremlin’s interests in every Russia-related case under examination. In the corps of 101 MEPs with a score of -3 to -5, we find the representatives of Lega, AfD, the Brexit Party and the French National Front, among others.
Table 2: The 7 most pro-Russian MEPs
Looking at individual MEPs in Central and Eastern Europe – Visegrad countries and Austria, our main project focus –, we find strongly Russian-critical voting patterns. Only seven MEPs have a negative KCI. Three Czech (one from the Communist Party and two from Freedom and Direct Democracy) and two Slovak MEPs (one from Marian Kotleba’s LSNS party and one independent) had the most pro-Kremlin views in the region (See Table 3).
Table 3: The 7 most pro-Russian MEPs in the V4+AT
Among member states, based on their KCI per MEP scores (See Chart 3), Italian MEPs have proven to be the most pro-Kremlin group, largely as a result of the voting patterns of Lega and M5S, who generally both favored positions in line with Moscow’s interests. Greek parliamentarians closely followed their Italian counterparts. Polish, Lithuanian and Romanian MEPs are on the other side of the scale. From our region of focus, Austria is also near the top performers, ranked 7th, while Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are in the middle of the pack.
Chart 3: Countries’ KCI per MEP score
Among national parties (See Table 4), small communist parties with 1-3 MEPs make up the majority of the ten parties with the lowest average KCI per MEP score, indicating the highest average support for decisions in line with Kremlin interests. This list includes the Belgian Workers’ Party (-6.0), the Portuguese Communist Party (-5.5), the Latvian Russian Union (-5.0) and Podemos (-4.3). Among larger parties with at least five MEPs, the far-left Die Linke (-5.6) and Jean-Luc Mélanchon’s LFI (-4.0), and the far-right AfD (-3.4), National Rally (-3.2), and the Brexit Party (-3.2) have proven to be the most likely to support pro-Kremlin positions. While only one party got a KCI score of -6, 19 achieved a score of 6, meaning that they supported Kremlin-critical positions in all instances, including the larger Austrian ruling party, the ÖVP. Among the ruling parties in the V4 and Austria, the ÖVP is followed by ANO 2011 and PiS (3.8), Smer-SD (3.5) and Fidesz-KDNP (2.3). In the region, the coalition partners or external supporters of the ruling parties in Austria and the Czech Republic are more of a cause for concern: the ÖVP’s Green coalition partners ended up with a lower score of 1.5, while the Czech Communist Party achieved a score of -4.0.
Table 4: Most pro-Kremlin parties by average KCI score per MEP
The GUE/NGL group proved to be the most pro-Kremlin (See Table 5). They were followed by the ID group in second place and non-attached members in third (even though, surprisingly, Hungarian Márton Gyöngyösi, a politician of Jobbik, achieved a KCI score of 6, meaning he took a Kremlin-critical view of all six Russia-related issues under consideration). The EPP proved to be the most critical of Russia among EP groups in these six cases.
Table 5: Average KCI per MEP scores for parliamentary groups.
Conclusion: the EP as an essential source of EU resilience
Overall, Russia seems to have a relatively small, but very devout group of supporters in the current European Parliament. The voting patterns confirm what our analysis of the vote on foreign electoral interference had indicated: Russia is mainly supported by the left- and right-wing margins of the EP. The ID and GUE/NGL groups and non-attached members generally vote along the lines of the Kremlin’s interests in the European Parliament, and when the five mainstream parliamentary groups are divided on certain issues, the votes of these MEPs might help block certain European efforts in countering Moscow’s foreign policy strategy, as seen in the case of the Special Committee Amendment. The current broad pro-EU majority in the EP could disappear later if mainstream parties do not find a way to stop the electoral gains of the radical left and the radical right.
Looking at all resolutions discussed in this article, not counting amendments, Russia did not even prove to be the most contentious foreign policy question so far in this parliamentary cycle, as – for instance – resolutions on Bolivia and Cuba only passed the EP with a majority of 64 and 57%, respectively.
In any case, the European Parliament has the necessary majority to pass resolutions on foreign policy matters that condemn not only third countries’ foreign interference in internal European democratic processes, but also the practices of third-country regimes that cannot be aligned with European values laid down in Article 2 of Treaty on the European Union. This could help make the institution the main voice of the EU on international issues in this parliamentary cycle, as the Council of the European Union is often paralysed by the unanimous voting requirement in the field of foreign policy.
About the project
Supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy among the Members of the European Parliament (MEP).
[i] all of them taken between the start of the 9th parliamentary term (2 July 2019) and 31 December 2019
[ii] In this analysis, we can only focus on the votes themselves and do not speculate about the reason of such votes, which might be ideological commitment, personal links to the Russian regiume and its proxies, or a mere rejection of mainstream initiatives. You can read more about the motives here.
[iii] We only selected votes where a roll-call vote was called, which reveals how individual MEPs voted. The votes chosen for analysis can be found at the end of the page.
[iv] The EP only held roll-call votes in three of these cases, that allows us for individual-level analysis of the votes. MEPs also took roll-call votes to approve three important amendments (Amendment 1 to the text on the situation of Ukrainian political prisoners and environmental activists in Russia, inserting a reference to the Magnitsky Act into the text [hereinafter: ‘Magnitsky Amendment]; Amendment 11 to the foreign interference text seeking to delete a passage in the text calling on the EP to contemplate setting up a special committee for electoral interference [hereinafter: Special Committee Amendment], and a specific paragraph in the text on the Russian Foreign Agent Law (stating that sanctions against Moscow can only be lifted if Russia fulfils its obligations [hereinafter: paragraph 13]).