Belgian and Czech leaders exhort the EU to react amid concern over Russian election interference

BRUSSELS (AP) — The leaders of Belgium and the Czech Republic are warning their European Union partners to take urgent action to prevent Russian interference in June’s Europe-wide elections, after the two countries’ intelligence services uncovered evidence of attempts to bribe EU lawmakers.

“We simply cannot allow Russia to get away with such a blatant attack on our democratic institutions and principles,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and his Czech counterpart Peter Fiala said in a letter, as EU leaders held a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

“We must arm ourselves against this, both at national and European level,” they wrote.

Last week, with campaigning for the June 6-9 starting to gather momentum, De Croo said that Belgium’s intelligence service has confirmed the existence of a network trying to undermine European support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

The Czech government has imposed sanctions on a number of people after a pro-Russian influence operation was uncovered there. They are alleged to have approached members of the European Parliament and offered them money to promote Russian propaganda.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a hidden campaign to influence the 2016 race in favor of Donald Trump over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, with Russian operatives hacking Democratic emails and facilitating their release in the run-up to the election.

More recently, they concluded that Putin had authorized influence operations in the 2020 election aimed at denigrating Joe Biden, boosting Trump, undermining confidence in the vote and exacerbating social divisions in the U.S. Trump and Putin have dismissed such findings.

Asked which politicians might have been bribed in Europe, De Croo said: “I don’t want to be in a position where I have information about political opponents. If that were the case, it would not be a good thing. That could undermine the credibility of everything our security services are doing.

“There is someone who is trying to influence, and there are people who allow themselves to be influenced, and when there is money involved, we must be able to take action,” he said at the summit, which is the last such meeting planned before the elections.

De Croo said that while the money had changed hands outside of Belgium, the political influence was happening in his country. Belgium currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency and is home to the bloc’s institutions as well as the headquarters of NATO.

He and Fiala want their partners to beef up the mandate of Europe’s anti-fraud agency and the EU public prosecutors’ office. De Croo warned that this could take time and pointed out that not all the bloc’s member countries have signed up to the prosecutors' office.

“We can’t wait until after the elections to take action when we know that the results might be influenced,” De Croo said.

During the summit, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola warned that “Russia’s attempts to skew narratives and strengthen pro-Kremlin sentiments … through disinformation are not anymore just a threat, but a possibility that we must be ready to counter.”

Elections to the EU’s assembly are held across the 27 member countries every five years. They involve a series of national polls to choose around 720 members. Many voters use the elections to cast protest ballots against their own national governments.

Members of the EU parliament, the bloc’s only democratically elected institution, shape and decide on new laws that influence the lives of around 420 million people living in Europe, ranging from economic affairs to the fight against poverty, tackling climate change and boosting security.

Last month, Latvia’s state security service started criminal proceedings against 73-year-old Latvian EU lawmaker Tatjana Ždanoka over alleged Russian ties. Reports in Russian, Nordic and Baltic news sites alleged that she had been an agent for the Russian Federal Security Service since at least 2004.

EU nations have poured billions of euros into Ukraine, along with significant amounts of weaponry and ammunition. They’ve also slapped sanctions on top Russian officials, including Putin, banks, companies and the energy sector since the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

But as the war has dragged on, with Russian troops appearing now to hold a slim advantage, that support has become increasingly difficult to sustain. Hungary, Putin’s closest European supporter, has held up the delivery of funds to Ukraine and is demanding that peace talks be held.