EU pressured to give results of leak probe into China disinformation

The EU faces pressure to reveal the results of a leak inquiry it launched over internal emails that suggested it toned down a report on alleged Chinese disinformation after pressure from Beijing.

European parliamentarians are concerned that the bloc’s diplomatic service has focused more on how the documents became public than on the substantive question of how it dealt with China’s complaints.

The affair has crystallised fears among some legislators, member state diplomats and analysts that the EU is reluctant to fund its anti-disinformation efforts properly or to push back strongly against Beijing.

The perceived hesitancy contrasts increasingly sharply with the economic countermeasures being drafted over China’s alleged failure to reciprocate the market access the EU allows Chinese companies.

“I am perplexed and unhappy they have not said anything about the leak inquiry,” Markéta Gregorová, a Czech MEP who sits on the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Financial Times.

She added: “The focus on the leak rather than the Chinese pressure is also strange.”

Ms Gregorová called for the diplomatic service to divulge the outcome of the leak inquiry launched in May and also what measures it had taken to improve its “resilience against self-censorship and undue interference”.

The EU’s diplomatic wing — known as the European External Action Service — has recently completed the final report on the leak, according to people familiar with the matter. An EU official said the inquiry had “identified clear evidence of unauthorised disclosure of information”, but had “not established evidence of a leak directly by EEAS staff to a journalist”. The EEAS insisted the inquiry was not yet closed.

The affair burst into public after internal diplomatic service emails, first disclosed by the New York Times, revealed a dispute over the editing of an April EU report that accused China of a “global disinformation campaign” during the coronavirus pandemic.

After a draft of the document leaked to the news organisation Politico, China made at least three formal diplomatic complaints to the EU and warned that bilateral relations would be hit should the bloc publicly accuse it of spreading coronavirus crisis propaganda.

A version of the report eventually published made criticisms of China but was shorn of any reference to the alleged “global disinformation campaign”.

In the internal diplomatic service emails, Monika Richter, a disinformation analyst, raised concerns that changes being made to the report showed the EU’s “apparent willingness to self-censor in response to Beijing’s threats”.

The diplomatic service responded by launching an inquiry into how the emails came to be disclosed. Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, told the European parliament foreign affairs committee in April that the “personal belief” of a staff member “maybe . . . written to be leaked” had damaged the credibility of the institution.

Ms Richter left the EU diplomatic service last week of her own accord to take a job in the private sector. She told the FT that she was not the source of the leak and was disillusioned by the EU’s institutional response to Chinese pressure.

“It was the fact that, in the face of what was an incredibly crude and also well-known intimidation tactic by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, the knee-jerk reaction was: ‘There’s pushback and so we should self-censor — or we need to second guess what we did’,” she said.

Hilde Vautmans, another MEP on the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said legislators had “made it very clear that the EU should never give in to pressure by the Chinese to censor reports”.

“I personally think it is very good if civil servants are critical and dare to share concerns with their colleagues about foreign pressure,” she said. “This is a culture that the European institutions should cherish and even encourage.”

Reinhard Bütikofer, a third parliamentary foreign affairs committee member, said that the diplomatic service must share the results of the leak inquiry once formally completed and deal with the “open questions” remaining about the matter.

The diplomatic service has always maintained it did not bow to Chinese pressure to soften the report. It has said the published document was the product of a normal editing process, with “particular attention” paid to ensure phraseology in public reports was “unassailable”.

It also defended the decision to launch the leak inquiry, arguing that breach of confidentiality was “a serious matter we cannot accept”. “It undermines the work done by the institution including the safety of the members working on disinformation,” it said.

China has denied it has spread disinformation during the pandemic.