Did Putin win the EU elections?

European populists have proclaimed victory at the EU vote. Should the Kremlin rejoice?

Marine Le Pen
French far-right National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen reacts after the first results of the EU elections are announced in Paris on May 26, 2019 [Reuters/Charles Platiau]

Last week 28 countries of the European Union held European parliamentary elections. Although the elected the 751-seat European parliament is not the top-decision making body in the union, its composition can significantly influence certain internal policies. The vote was also an opportunity to gauge political attitudes of the 500 million EU population.

As in previous years, this EU election also demonstrated that populism has become a formidable force in European politics. Far-right and Eurosceptic parties had a strong showing, with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) winning the most votes in France (23 percent) and Matteo Salvini’s League Party emerging on top of the polls in Italy with 34 percent.

As with various national elections that took place over the past few years, where populists either won or gained significant numbers in parliament, the EU polls raised questions once more about Russian interference. Many Europeans today ask themselves to what extent their democratic choice is undermined by Russian money and disinformation campaigns which help anti-EU populist parties score high at every election.

Indeed, it is difficult to deny the fact that the Russian authorities are actively supporting such forces – one simply needs to switch on the Russian broadcaster RT to get a confirmation of that. But what is the actual scale of this effort and how effective is it?

There are two popular responses to this question: one, that Russia uses a number of instruments to manipulate public opinion (from hackers to trolls to media propaganda and direct financing of populists), which have proven highly effective; two, that Russia is trying hard, but its influence on the ground is minuscule and instead it is European leaders who are blowing the issue out of proportion to cover up their inability to stem the rise of destructive populism in their countries.

Both points of view have their strong arguments and could be seen as valid in different European contexts. However, there are a few aspects of the Russian interference story that various investigations and studies have proven to be a fact.

Some European politicians take Russian money

In a number of European countries, various parties (some also in power) and political actors have received and/or are willing to receive financial support from Russia in one way or another.

Ibiza-gate, the major political scandal threatening to bring down the Austrian government, is a great recent illustration of this fact. Earlier this month, two German newspapers released a video showing Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which was part of the Austrian ruling coalition, offering help to a person representing a Russian oligarch in obtaining state contracts and suggesting he purchase a major Austrian tabloid to support the FPO.

Recent investigations have also revealed that the populist and Eurosceptic League Party, one of two coalition parties in the Italian government, has had financial dealings with the Kremlin. The Czech president Milos Zeman has also been the subject of close media scrutiny for having links with various Russian corporations.

In France, it is already a well-known fact that in 2014 Le Pen took out loans to fund her election campaign which she never had to repay as the Russian Kremlin-linked bank which lent her the money went bankrupt. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing investigation into British businessman Arron Banks, who is suspected of channelling Russian money into the Brexit campaign.

Russia trolls the EU on a large scale

Russia has managed to launch and maintain large-scale disinformation campaigns on social media at a relatively low cost and has succeeded in capturing the attention of a significant number of European social media users.

A recent study by US-based non-profit organisation Avaaz into networks of disinformation on Facebook contained some interesting insights. According to the report, “disinformation networks removed by Facebook as a result of this investigation posted content viewed an estimated half a billion (533M) times over the last three months. This means that, on average, these networks produced content that was seen almost 6 million times per day.”

While it is difficult to say what the impact of these disinformation networks has been on voting patterns, given their scale, it is difficult not to believe that they have an influence on public opinion. Another interesting observation the Avaaz report makes is that “together, the pages removed had almost three times more followers (5.9 million) than the pages of the main European far right and anti-EU parties, League, AfD, VOX, Brexit Party, Rassemblement National and PiS, combined (2 million)”.

In other words, Russian trolls are much more effective in spreading disinformation, populist ideas and conspiracy theories on social media than Russian-backed European parties. They are undeniably a powerful weapon in the ongoing information wars.

Ordinary Europeans readily jump on Russia’s bandwagon

Over the past few months, I, along with journalists Anna Saraste and Anne Sophie Schroeder, took part in an independent study of Russian disinformation campaigns ahead of the EU elections. During our research, we did interviews with dozens of experts and organisations from across Europe (including Russia) which deal with monitoring disinformation in local media.

One of the conclusions we drew was that people responsible for spreading disinformation are not only European politicians and public figures with close ties to Russia (whether business, financial or even family), but also individuals who are simply seeking public attention.

Part of the propaganda strategy of the Kremlin is to give various conspiracy theorists and supporters of fringe ideas a platform. Thus, people of no consequence, public standing or significant academic knowledge are regularly legitimised and made into “experts” by being featured on RT or on Russian-sponsored websites such as Sputnik, being invited to conferences in Russia, becoming “observers” at elections in Crimea, etc.

In return, these “fakesperts” enthusiastically bash Brussels and Washington and praise Moscow, helping it spread its propaganda.

To go back to the question posed in the title of the piece: did Putin win the EU elections? Well, not really.

Although populist Eurosceptics won a significant number of votes, they still did not achieve the sweeping victory they had hoped for. Le Pen’s party, for example, lost 1.5 percent compared to the 2014 EU vote, while Austria’s scandal-ridden FPO – 2 percent; Alternative for Germany (AfD) performed worse compared to the national elections in 2017; and the Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands did not win any seats this year.

There could be a number of explanations for this stall in populist resurgence in Europe, one is certainly the activation of moderate voters who in previous elections would not show up to the polling stations. This year, they responded to the public call of politicians and civic activists to stand up to the far right, which resulted in a significantly higher turnout (nearly 51 percent) in comparison to the previous vote (42 percent).

So while the likes of Le Pen and Salvini are claiming “victory of the people”, perhaps this election marks the beginning of the end of the populist wave that has swept through Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.