EU Commission and the High Representative are assessing their steps to fight disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic and are proposing a way forward. This follows the tasking by European leaders in March 2020 to resolutely counter disinformation and reinforce resilience of European societies. The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive wave of false or misleading information, including attempts by foreign actors to influence EU citizens and debates. The Joint Communication analyses the immediate response and proposes concrete action that can be quickly set in motion.
High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell said: “Disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. We have a duty to protect our citizens by making them aware of false information, and expose the actors responsible for engaging in such practices. In today’s technology-driven world, where warriors wield keyboards rather than swords and targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns are a recognised weapon of state and non-state actors, the European Union is increasing its activities and capacities in this fight.”
Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová said: “Disinformation waves have hit Europe during the Coronavirus pandemic. They originated from within as well as outside the EU. To fight disinformation, we need to mobilise all relevant players from online platforms to public authorities, and support independent fact checkers and media. While online platforms have taken positive steps during the pandemic, they need to step up their efforts. Our actions are strongly embedded in fundamental rights, in particular freedom of expression and information.”
The crisis has become a test case showing how the EU and its democratic societies deal with the disinformation challenge. The following aspects are key for a stronger and more resilient EU:
Understand: First, it is important to distinguish between illegal content and content that is harmful but not illegal. Then, there are blurred boundaries between the various forms of false or misleading content: from disinformation, which is defined as intentional, to misinformation, which can be unintentional. The motivation can range from targeted influence operations by foreign actors to purely economic motives. A calibrated response is needed to each of these challenges. Furthermore, there is a need to provide more data for public scrutiny and improve analytical capacities.
Communicate: During the crisis, the EU has been stepping up its work to inform citizens about the risks and to enhance cooperation with other international actors to tackle disinformation. The Commission has been rebutting myths around the coronavirus, which have been viewed more than 7 million times. The European External Action Service, together with the Commission, enhanced strategic communication and public diplomacy in third countries, including the EU’s neighbourhood. Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally. For example, the EEAS East Stratcom Task Force detected and exposed more than 550 disinformation narratives from pro-Kremlin sources on the EUvsDisinfo website.
Cooperation has been an important cornerstone of the fight against disinformation:
- With the European Parliament and the Council and between EU institutions and Member States, by using established channels, such as the Rapid Alert System and the EU integrated political crisis response. These channels will be further developed to strengthen capacities, to improve risk analysis and vital reporting in times of crisis.
- With international partners, including the WHO, the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism, NATO and others. This led to an increased sharing of information, activities and best practices. It should be intensified to better address foreign influence and disinformation.
- The EU will step up support and assistance to civil society actors, independent media and journalists in third countries as part of the ‘Team Europe’ package, and enhance support for monitoring violations of press freedom and advocacy for a safer media environment.
- Finally, many consumers were misled to buy overpriced, ineffective or potentially dangerous products, and platform have removed millions of misleading advertisements. The Commission will continue to cooperate with online platforms and support the Consumer Protection Cooperation network of national authorities to fight these practices that infringe consumer protection law.
Transparency: The Commission has closely monitored the actions of online platforms under the Code of Practice on Disinformation. There is a need for additional efforts, increased transparency and greater accountability:
- Platforms should provide monthly reports that include more detailed data on their actions to promote authoritative content, improve users’ awareness, and limit coronavirus disinformation and advertising related to it. They should also step up their cooperation with fact-checkers – in all Members States, for all languages – and researchers, and be more transparent about implementation of their policies to inform users that interact with disinformation.
- The Commission strongly encourages other relevant stakeholders that are not yet signatories to the Code to participate in this new monitoring programme.
- Building on the work of the newly established European Digital Media Observatory, the EU will further strengthen its support to fact-checkers and researchers.
Ensuring freedom of expression and pluralistic democratic debate is central to our disinformation response. The Commission will continue monitoring the impact of emergency measures taken by Member States in the coronavirus context, on EU law and values. The crisis demonstrated the role of free and independent media as an essential service, providing citizens with reliable, fact-checked information, contributing to saving lives.The EU will strengthen its support to independent media and journalists in the EU and around the world.The Commission calls upon Member States to intensify efforts to ensure that journalists can work safely and to make the most of the EU’s economic response and recovery package to support media heavily hit by the crisis, while respecting their independence.
Empowering citizens, raising citizens awareness and increasing societal resilience implies enabling citizens to participate in the democratic debate by preserving access to information and freedom of expression, promoting citizens’ media and information literacy, including critical thinking and digital skills. This can be done through media literacy projects and support to civil society organisations.
The actions proposed today will feed into future EU work on disinformation, notably the European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act.
The European Union has been actively tackling disinformation since 2015. Following a decision of the European Council in March 2015, the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service (EEAS) was set up. In 2016, the Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats was adopted, followed by the Joint Communication on increasing resilience and bolstering capabilities to address hybrid threats in 2018.
The Action Plan against Disinformation of December 2018 outlined four pillars for the EU’s fight against disinformation: 1) improving the capabilities to detect, analyse and expose disinformation; 2) strengthening coordinated and joint responses, i.a. through the Rapid Alert System; 3) mobilising the private sector to tackle disinformation; 4) raising awareness and improving societal resilience.
In October 2018, the Code of Practice was signed by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla as well as trade associations representing online platforms, the advertising industry, and advertisers as a self-regulatory tool to tackle disinformation. Microsoft joined the Code in 2019. The signatories submitted self-assessments in October 2019. The Commission will publish a comprehensive assessment in the forthcoming weeks.
Finally, in a Joint Communication of June 2019, the Commission and the High Representative concluded that while the European elections of May 2019 were not free from disinformation, the actions taken by the EU have contributed to narrow down the space for third-country influence as well as coordinated campaigns to manipulate public opinion.
Towards a stronger and more resilient Schengen area
The first ever Schengen Forum, convened today by the Commission, allowed for constructive exchanges towards building a stronger and more resilient Schengen area. The videoconference gathered Members of the European Parliament and Home Affairs Ministers with the aim of fostering cooperation and political dialogue and rebuilding trust.
Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “Today’s discussions showed a strong collective commitment to preserve and strengthen Schengen. For the last 35 years, we have built an entire Schengen architecture to better protect the area without controls at internal borders. And we must continue to build on and improve that architecture going forward.”
Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has shown how much we need Schengen. Moving freely within the EU is a daily necessity for millions of Europeans for work or school for instance. It’s also crucial for companies transporting goods around Europe. Schengen can be our lifeline when it comes to Europe’s economic recovery post-coronavirus. That is why our discussions today on building a more resilient Schengen are so important.”
The discussions focused on:
Improving the mechanism to evaluate the implementation of the Schengen rules: Options for operational improvements as well as legislative changes to the mechanism were discussed for better monitoring, quicker and more efficient identification of possible deficiencies and effective follow up.
Finding a way forward on the revision of the Schengen Borders Code: Participants discussed possible ways forward to improve the current Schengen rules, with the shared objective of overcoming existing internal border controls and ensuring that any possible reintroduction of controls at internal borders in the future is proportionate, used as a measure of last resort and for a limited period of time.
Better managing the EU’s external borders: Participants stressed the need for quickly putting in place the Entry/Exit System (EES) and the European Traveller Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). These systems complement existing databases such as the Schengen Information System or the Visa Information System, which need to be used in full. The ongoing work towards ensuring that information systems for migration, border management and security become interoperable by 2023 was highlighted as crucial to give border guards the information they need to know who is crossing the EU’s borders. The deployment of the European Border and Coast Guard standing corps starting from January 2021 will also provide increased support to Member States’ border guards whenever and wherever needed.
Enhancing police cooperation and information exchange: Common and coordinated European action, for instance through increased police cooperation, better information exchange and better use of new technologies, is crucial to guarantee security within the Schengen area. Police checks can also constitute an effective alternative to the reintroduction of border controls. Measures such as joint patrols, joint investigation teams, cross-border hot pursuits or joint threat analysis were discussed as being alternatives to effectively address threats to security.
Strengthening the governance of the Schengen area: Regular meetings of the Schengen Forum, based on reports provided by the Commission, will help ensure the political involvement of all relevant players.
Today’s discussions are the first step in an inclusive political debate towards building a stronger Schengen area based on mutual trust. They will feed into the Schengen Strategy that the Commission intends to present in mid-2021.
Following today’s first videoconference, the Schengen Forum will continue to meet regularly both at political or technical levels. The next meeting of the Forum at political level will take place in spring 2021, ahead of the presentation of the Strategy for a stronger Schengen area. Targeted consultations at technical level will also take place with representatives from the European Parliament and national authorities over the next months.
35 years ago, 5 Member States agreed to remove border controls between themselves. Today, the Schengen area encompasses 26 European States with over 400 million citizens and it is a key policy of the European Union. It underpins the seamless functioning of the EU internal market in goods and services and has allowed Europeans to organise their private and professional lives around unfettered travel around Europe.
Schengen rules require an update to adapt them to evolving challenges. The pandemic, security concerns, and migration management issues have led Member States to reintroduce internal border checks. To address these challenges and build a more resilient Schengen area, the Commission announced in September this year the creation of a Schengen Forum to foster operational cooperation and stronger confidence in the rules.
MEPs condemn Turkey’s activities in Varosha, Cyprus, and call for sanctions
Turkey’s decision to “open” the sealed-off suburb of Varosha undermines prospects of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, warn MEPs.
In a resolution adopted by 631 votes in favour, 3 against and 59 abstentions, MEPs condemn Turkey’s illegal activities in the Varosha suburb of the city of Famagusta and warn that its partial “opening” weakens prospects of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, exacerbating divisions and entrenching the permanent partition of the island.
MEPs call on Turkey to transfer Varosha to its lawful inhabitants under the temporary administration of the UN (in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 550 (1984)) and to refrain from any actions that alter the demographic balance on the island through a policy of illegal settlement.
Tough sanctions against Turkey
A sustainable solution to reunify the island of Cyprus and its people can only be found through dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiations, MEPs stress. They call on the European Council to maintain its unified position on Turkey’s illegal actions and impose tough sanctions in response.
MEPS regret that the Turkish authorities have endorsed the two-state solution for Cyprus and reiterate their support for a fair, comprehensive and viable settlement on the basis of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation with a single international legal status. They also call on the EU to play a more active role in bringing the negotiations under UN auspices to a successful conclusion.
Tense EU-Turkey relations
As Turkey distances itself more and more from European values and standards, EU-Turkey relations are at a historic low, warns Parliament. Its illegal and unilateral military actions in the Eastern Mediterranean infringe on the sovereignty of EU member states Greece and Cyprus. MEPs also point out Turkey’s direct support of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as its actions in Libya and Syria.
The Turkish army fenced off Varosha immediately after the invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The Greek Cypriots who fled from Varosha were not allowed to return and with public entry prohibited, Varosha has effectively become a ghost town.
Commission and EBRD promote innovative use of data in public procurement involving EU funds
The European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Open Contracting Partnership are joining forces to improve the quality and transparency of public tenders co-funded by EU funds in Greece and Poland. Thanks to their support, two pilot projects will provide expertise and hands-on support to public authorities in both countries, with a focus on digital innovation.
By promoting the smart use of innovation and open data, the two pilots will help public administrations to better plan, implement and monitor the procurement of works, goods and services. This will improve the use of public resources and increase opportunities for businesses, especially for small and medium companies (SMEs). Moreover, thanks to a cooperation with local civil society organisations, this initiative will also favour transparency of public spending and stimulate citizens’ participation in the monitoring of investments with a direct impact on the community, such as investments in sustainability, local development and social inclusion.
The two pilot projects
- In Greece, the project will aim at consolidating and integrating all databases into a single smart public contract register. This will enable online access for bidders and citizens, improve quality of data and facilitate the use of data-driven analytical tools for monitoring the procurement process.
- In Poland, the initiative will support Polish national and local authorities to introduce open data in public procurement and promote automated collection, standardisation, and consolidation of procurement data on all tenders.
The two pilots will run until the end of 2021 and their results will be disseminated in order to ensure a successful roll out in other Member States.
Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira, said: “In the programming period 2021-2027, Cohesion policy will continue to support Member States and regions in their economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic, as well as boosting competitiveness through new investments in research and innovation, digital transition and the implementation of the European Green Deal agenda. Through the use of new technologies, national and local public authorities managing EU funds will be able to spend public money more effectively ensuring the best possible results for citizens and businesses”.
Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, added: “Transparency in public procurement is essential to ensure efficiency of public investments, in line with the EU strategic policy goals aiming at a greener, digital and more resilient Europe. Public authorities can rely on the EU’s public procurement framework, tools like the electronic procurement systems and open data for an efficient use of public funds.”
The EBRD Vice-President, Pierre Heilbronn commented: “The EBRD is committed to support legal and institutional reforms aimed at ensuring that procurement laws and practices are modern, in line with international standards and can swiftly respond to emerging challenges. Together with Open Contracting Partnership, we are sharing the experience of successful civil society procurement monitoring based on open data. Our joint efforts aim to create a framework for enlisting civil society organisations to support public procurement reforms and use open data to monitor procurement.”
In the context of the next long-term EU budget, more than €370 billion from Cohesion policy funds will be invested to support the digital and green transitions of the Member States. Every year, public authorities in the EU spend around 14% of GDP on public procurement, amounting to more than €1.9 trillion. Almost half of Cohesion policy funding is channelled through public procurement. The Commission has promoted a series of initiatives aimed at helping Member States to improve the way administrations and beneficiaries use public procurement for EU investments. These include the Integrity Pacts to ensure more efficient and transparent tenders and safeguarding EU taxpayers’ money. The Commission also took action to facilitate citizen engagement for better governance and effective Cohesion policy investments.
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