The EU’s diplomatic service took aim at Chinese disinformation — and ended up accused of disinformation by members of the European Parliament.
At a hearing of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Thursday, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, denied that his staff had watered down a report on disinformation to appease China. But he appeared to acknowledge an effort by Beijing to influence the EU’s findings, and several MEPs declared that they were not satisfied with his answers.
“Honestly, your explanation doesn’t really convince me,” said Hilde Vautmans, a Belgian MEP from the liberal Renew Europe group. Vautmans added, “Mr. Borrell, we need the truth, and we need it now.”
Reinhard Bütikofer, a German MEP from the Greens group, said he largely accepted Borrell’s explanation that the final report was still tough enough on China, but he also accused EU staff of mishandling questions around the disinformation document. “I think your press people should not lie to the media,” Bütikofer said.
Markéta Gregorová, a Czech MEP from the Pirates party, said either way, the EU’s reputation had taken a hit. “The European Union is portrayed as weak and bowing to Chinese influence,” Gregorová told Borrell. “Whether true or not, the damage to our reputation is done and we inadvertently communicated to our adversaries that harassing and intimidating our diplomats will work and they should continue.”
In issuing his denials, Borrell reiterated a point stressed by his office in recent days that in fact there were two separate disinformation reports
Borrell, in his opening statement and in response to questions, dismissed media reports that the European External Action Service (EEAS) had succumbed to pressure from Beijing and softened the report.
“We have not bowed to anyone,” he said at one point, adding later: “There was no watering down of our findings.”
But he did not dispute that the Chinese government sought to exert influence.
“It’s clear and evident that China expressed their concerns when they knew the document that was leaked,” Borrell said, adding “I’m not going to reveal how it was done because we don’t explain this kind of diplomacy.”
In issuing his denials, Borrell reiterated a point stressed by his office in recent days that in fact there were two separate disinformation reports — one solely for internal consumption and a second for publication. He challenged anyone with questions to read the public report online.
“There are two different publications … for two different audiences,” Borrell told MEPs.
The report that leaked early last week was solely “for limited and internal circulation,” he said, and distinct from a version that was intended for publication on the EEAS website.
“We have to be very careful when we publish something that we are sure of the quality of the sources,” Borrell said.
Three people with knowledge of the matter told POLITICO last week that Chinese diplomats exerted pressure on the EU to change the wording of the document that was first reported in POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook on Tuesday April 21.
One EU official said the Chinese foreign ministry had protested about the report through several diplomatic channels.
An internal email last week, seen by Brussels Playbook, warned officials that changing the wording could trigger a public backlash: “This will not look good for us,” it read.
The New York Times reported Friday that an EU diplomat wrote to colleagues that “the Chinese [were] threatening with reactions if the report comes out.”
The EEAS published a report on “narratives and disinformation” around the coronavirus pandemic on Friday but its language was softer than in the earlier document shared with POLITICO.
Most strikingly, references to China running a “global disinformation” campaign and Chinese criticism of France’s reaction to the pandemic were absent. “Official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and — to a lesser extent — China, have continued to widely target conspiracy narratives and disinformation,” read the published report.
Among the diplomatic service’s concerns is that China has ramped up its public diplomacy campaigns on social media channels like Twitter.
Diplomats in Chinese embassies in Europe and beyond haven’t shied away from amplifying information from news sources like the Russian state-backed media outlet RT, and diplomats have accused European officials and media of spreading misinformation about the public health crisis.
Beijing’s online activity has increased significantly since the start of the coronavirus crisis, an earlier analysis by POLITICO showed. It also matches earlier warnings from Western diplomats and misinformation experts that China has changed its online tactics in the wake of last year’s Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.