The recognition comes at an opportune time as the Parliament has just set up its own Fake News Rebuttal Unit to deal with the anticipated onslaught of Russian interference at next year’s EP elections. In a plenary debate on the issue, one MEP warned that “Russian meddling in democratic elections is no longer the exception, it is becoming the norm … how many seats will Russia get next year?” MEPs recognised that they are totally out-gunned by the Russians in this battle, with the home team of 22 on a budget of €1 million no match for the mighty Russian propaganda machine with €1 billion backing. While parliament may be secretly flattered that the Russians consider their elections worth meddling in (if only this interest could be extended to the voting public), they recognise the risk that false reports could increase support for populist parties.
Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, was in town to ensure that the UK’s Brexit promise to avoid a hard Irish border was not fake news and warned against any “backsliding” on its commitment. He was the first of a series of EU leaders to be invited to set out his thoughts on the EU’s future and he came out in favour of both the Spitzenkandidat system to choose the next Commission president and trans-national lists for the next elections. “Let’s get people in cafes in Naples and restaurants in Galway talking about the same election choices”. The same initiatives were backed by Emmanuel Macron in his Sorbonne speech and will no doubt be repeated when he too addresses the plenary on 17 April. It’s interesting to note that despite Martin Schulz’s obvious support for the Spitzenkandidat process, this German word which has now entered all our vocabularies was nowhere to be seen in the draft CDU/SPD coalition document that Socialist members will vote on Sunday evening.
It was hard not to think back to Schulz and Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous remarks that he would make a good Nazi concentration camp leader when looking at the latest Nazi slur to hit the parliament. There has been outrage at the comments of one of the parliaments own vice-presidents, Ryszard Czarnecki comparing his fellow Polish MEP Roza Thun to a Nazi collaborator, and equal indignation when he was allowed to chair part of the session. He refused to give anyone the floor who was going to talk about the issue. There are calls for him to be sacked and spamming his colleagues mailboxes with thousands of letters of support will hardly have helped his case.
One notable absentee from Strasbourg this week was Socialist leader Gianni Pittella. Officially he was campaigning for the forthcoming Italian election. Unofficially (or is this just fake news?) he was sounding out his chances of standing as a candidate. With Schulz having left the Socialist leadership just one year ago to run for national office, this could become a worrying trend. No word on who could replace him in the run up to the elections – maybe we should ask the Russians?