by Davide Basso
The French Parliamentary Delegation for Intelligence (DPR) has identified Russia, China, Turkey and Iran as leading the way in terms of foreign interference in France and Europe, and while Moscow currently holds the top stop, a recent report states that Beijing is set to overtake it as it has some 250,000 agents on the ground.
As for combatting the risks, the annual report takes stock of the current situation regarding intelligence and foreign interference and has laid down several measures to counter threats, including introducing binding rules, awareness-raising campaigns, and sanctions at the EU level.
“The level of threats from foreign interference is high in a tense international context,” wrote the DPR in its report, published on Thursday.
The DPR is responsible for overseeing the government in intelligence and comprises a small number of MPs from all the political parties represented in parliament. As the DPR works largely under the “defence secrecy” seal, many parts of the report have been redacted.
However, one thing is clear: the high threat level from foreign interference is linked to “a radical change in the geopolitical context” and “the digital and technological revolution”. The report explains that this has made cyberspace “the preferred arena for confrontation” between states and expanded their capacity for influence, interference and espionage.
According to the DPR, the states whose activities give rise to the greatest concern are Russia, China, Turkey and Iran.
The delegation explains that Russia is the only state that has “established as an official doctrine” the manipulation of information with the aim of “weakening the West”, referring to interference in electoral processes, notably in the 2016 US and 2017 French presidential elections (“Macron Leaks”).
The report also highlights the special case of China and the extraordinary size of its foreign intelligence service, which has 250,000 agents. Moreover, Chinese legislation “makes every Chinese national a potential spy, with obstruction of intelligence work punishable by sanctions”, increasing the risk of interference.
The Chinese diaspora is an important cog in China’s strategy of interference – known as the “United Front” – through a network of institutions directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and the control of Chinese-language media in many foreign countries.
The report explains that China’s specificity also lies in economic and academic interference and espionage. This takes the form of investment in strategic sectors – energy, transport, dual-use companies, disruptive technologies – and the funding of universities across Europe.
It also affects allied countries: the delegation is concerned that small, medium-sized and larger companies, as well as start-ups, are being forced to turn to foreign funding. “It is estimated that large American groups eventually take over 80% of French start-ups,” it says.
However, “the Russian threat is significantly the biggest, but in the medium term, in about ten years, the Chinese threat, which is global and systemic, will undoubtedly be the biggest,” the report adds.
Putting an end to ‘naivety’
For the MPs who drafted the report, “the first vulnerability is naivety, which stems from a lack of awareness of the danger. This concerns public decision-makers (elected representatives and senior civil servants) as well as businesses and academic circles”.
They are therefore calling for the introduction of systematic awareness campaigns aimed at national and local elected representatives, businesses and academia.
“These foreign powers are also taking advantage of a form of naivety and denial that has long prevailed in Europe”, continues the DPR, according to which “the return of war to our continent has led to a collective realisation of the need to protect our sovereignty”.
Therefore, the report’s authors consider that it is necessary “to defend ourselves” against such interference and “to develop counter-intelligence tools that are compatible with respect for our democratic values”.
Among their recommendations, the members of the DPR recommend “making it compulsory for actors who influence French public life on behalf of a foreign power to be registered and to be subject to a series of ethical obligations” along the lines of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
“The introduction of an ad hoc system in France could also foreshadow the creation of a European FARA,” hopes the DPR.
Drawing in part on the conclusions of the report by the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Interference, the DPR also calls for an “appropriate European response” to counter foreign interference at the EU level.
Firstly, the delegation advocates “the introduction of binding legal instruments accompanied by a system of sanctions […] to put an end to a form of impunity” for destabilisation and disinformation campaigns emanating from abroad.
For example, the European Union’s code of good practice against online disinformation should be binding.
More generally, MEPs call for improvements to the “European cyber security mechanism, with human and financial resources adapted to the challenges and a guarantee that the security of strategic infrastructures does not depend on foreign technologies”. They also propose the idea of an “international treaty on cybersecurity”, which the EU could promote.
Finally, the DPR recommends defining a “strategic partnership between the different actors and structures of the EU and the Member States” to ensure effective coordination between allies.
While the European Commission is calling for a legislative and regulatory package to “defend European democracy” to introduce standards of transparency and accountability for foreign interest representatives, this initiative has been criticised by civil society organisations.
More than ever, therefore, “we need a public debate on the democratic response to foreign interference,” the report concludes, calling on the French government to introduce a law to combat the phenomenon while awaiting a European response.
*first published in: Euractiv.com