Between 23 and 26 May 2019, European citizens will elect their representatives to the European Parliament, shaping the political landscape and the appointment of the EU institutions’ leaders. The Romanian Presidency of the EU Council has made a priority the need for streamlined and sustained action to protect free and democratic EU elections. Combating disinformation and increasing EU capacity to deter and respond to cyber-attacks are also regarded as key elements in securing the electoral process.
Mass disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activities, including attacks on the electoral infrastructure, are increasingly aiming to discredit and undermine the electoral processes and our democracies, while polarizing societies.
The EU institutions and Member States have important, complementary roles to play, each in the remit of its competence, in protecting democratic processes. This requires concerted efforts by the EU and the Member States, with support from civil society, industry and online platforms. The response must be comprehensive, with a focus on both the internal and the external dimension of the addressed threats.
In February 2019, the Council and its Member States adopted conclusions on securing free and fair European elections. They welcomed the Commission proposal amending the Regulation on European political parties and foundations, adopted by co-legislators in the meantime. They also welcomed the Joint Action Plan against disinformation. The Council Conclusions also set out a comprehensive approach in order to protect the European elections from interference such as cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns from inside and outside the EU. A comprehensive approach eliminates loopholes, while all strands of action and all actors are closely connected. To achieve this objective, the Conclusions identified actions to be taken, and that have been implemented in the last few months:
- holding regular meetings of the European election cooperation network in which Member States share expertise and good practices while jointly identifying threats;
- setting up and launching the Rapid Alert System where national contact points in Member States share information rapidly on disinformation campaigns;
- enhancing strategic communication dedicated to European values and policies;
- strengthening the European media ecosystem, by facilitating networks of independent fact-checkers;
- promoting media and digital literacy, with awareness-raising activities to protect the integrity of the electoral process, in partnership with the private sector and civil society;
- assessing cyber threats in the electoral context and the measures to address them to preserve the integrity of the electoral system;
- calling on social media platforms to invest in resources for dealing in a responsible and accountable manner with election-related online activities; meanwhile, the European Council in March called for the full implementation of the Code of Practice;
- and finally, among this set of actions, cooperating with relevant international actors.
The Council and its Member States also called on online platforms and Member States to intensify their efforts in promoting transparency in election-related online activities. Online platforms have to invest the necessary resources to deal with election-related online activities in a responsible, accountable and consistent manner, including by:
- ensuring transparency and accountability as regards data processing and data analysis for political purposes;
- identifying and eliminating bots used for information manipulation purposes;
- eliminating algorithmic biases that promote disinformation and distort public debate;
- removing illegal online content;
- and providing access to data for the purpose of research aiming to identify relevant vulnerabilities, all the while ensuring media freedom, and preventing advertisements from being removed due to political considerations, in full compliance with data protection rules.
In order to contribute to the efforts of countering disinformation, the Romanian Presidency of the EU Council has launched a mapping exercise to identify the actions undertaken at the national level which demonstrated the significant efforts made by Member States to combat disinformation. The answers provided by the delegations will form the basis of a synthesis report that will feed into discussions on the possible ways forward, even beyond the 2019 elections, foreseen for the next European Council in June.