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Even the ‘useful idiots’ in the European Parliament are distancing themselves from Putin

Vladimir Putin is losing support among far-right parties in Europe. His carefully curated team of ‘useful idiots’ is falling apart. Analyses by Follow the Money of voting patterns among members of the European Parliament show that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led MEPs for German party Alternative für Deutschland to drop off, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France to make an opportunistic turn, and Dutch right-wingers JA21 to change their opinions.

This article in 1 minute
  • Follow the Money (FTM) analysed twelve critical motions on Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, put to the vote in the European Parliament since August 2020. This analysis showed that parties on the outermost left and right wings of the political spectrum consistently voted against these motions or abstained from voting on them.
  • Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, their voting behaviour has changed. The right-wing parties appear to be doing everything in their power to hide their sympathy for Putin
  • On the right, Marine Le Pen’s French party Rassemblement National (‘National Gathering’) and German faction Alternative für Deutschland (‘Alternatives for Germany’) are most fanatical in their support for the Kremlin, whereas the left is mostly driven by pacifism while not entirely adverse to playing up pro-Russian propaganda.
  • Dutch MEPs for JA21 (‘YES ’21’) have abstained from voting on the grounds that, in their opinion, the European Parliament ‘should have no say in foreign policy,’ while their compatriot Marcel de Graaff, MEP for the Forum voor Democratie (‘Forum for Democracy’) blames the West for the war and advocates for closer economic bonds with Russia.

 

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French daily Libération reports how in late February presidential candidate Marine Le Pen destroyed 1.2 million election pamphlets. The eight-page brochure features a 2017 photograph of Le Pen shaking hands with Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow. ‘A woman with conviction’, the caption reads. As front woman of Rassemblement National (‘National Gathering’) – the movement formerly known as Front National (‘National Front’) – she now seems convinced that the image does her reputation more harm than good. France’s presidential elections are this April.

Le Pen is not the only radically right-wing politician to hastily distance themselves from previous pro-Russian stances, or to at least want to give off that impression. The same is happening in the European Parliament, an analysis of votes regarding Russia-related topics shows. These concern representatives who in the past, either consciously or subconsciously, did the Kremlin’s bidding: Russia’s ‘useful idiots’ in the European Parliament.

August 2020 saw fraudulent elections followed by public protests in Belarus, as well as the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Follow the Money examined twelve subsequent motions the European Parliament have since voted on, the most recent one being a motion on 1 March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling for heavy sanctions. Votes concerning financial aid to Ukraine, opposition leader Navalny’s arrest, and Russia’s banning of civil movements were included in the research.

Follow the Money’s analysis shows that the European Parliament’s radical right-wing parties weren’t the only ones to vote against or abstain from voting on motions condemning Russia’s actions. At the other far end of the political spectrum, all the way on the left, FTM found significant aversion against criticising Moscow. Even parties operating on the political centre ground have shown considerable hesitancy: German social democrats SPD (‘Social Democratic Party of Germany’) – chancellor Olaf Scholz’s party – would rather not rub Putin the wrong way. There has, however, been a noticeable change of direction since the start of Russia’s latest war.

The twelve motions that were analysed

1. 14 September 2020

The European Parliament does not acknowledge Belarus’s election result, condemns the violence against protestors, and calls on Russia to not interfere in the ‘democratic revolution in Belarus’.
547 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 37 vote against, 82 abstain from voting.

2. 17 September 2020 

Motion condemning the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and calling for extra sanctions against Russia.
532 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 84 vote against, 72 abstain from voting.

3. 21 October 2020

Once again, the European Parliament demands an end to the violence in Belarus and condemns the Russian interference. 
602 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 44 vote against, 44 abstain from voting.

4. 21 January 2021

Motion condemning the arrest of opposition leader Navalny and calling for sanctions. 
581 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 50 against, 44 abstain from voting.

5. 10 February 2021

Report on the association agreement with Ukraine. The European Union compliments the country on its achieved progress and calls for it to expedite further reforms. Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine is condemned. 
525 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 79 against, 71 abstain from voting.

6. 29 April 2021

Motion condemning the Russian build-up of troops on the border with Ukraine, Navalny’s imprisonment and the involvement of Russian security services in an explosion at a Czech weapons depot. Parliament demands that Europe reduces its dependency on Russian gas. 
569 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 67 against, 46 abstain from voting.

7. 15 September 2021

Report about the European Union’s relationship with Russia. Major concerns about Russian interference in other countries. Call for the EU to be prepared to exclude Russian from international payments system SWIFT.
409 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 103 against, 72 abstain from voting.

8. 25 November 2021

Motion condemning human rights violations by the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organisation with strong ties to the Kremlin.
585 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 40 against, 43 abstain from voting.

9. 16 December 2021

Motion demanding an immediate end to the Russian build-up of troops on the border with Ukraine.
548 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 69 against, 54 abstain from voting.

10. 16 December 2021

Motion condemning the oppression of human rights organisations in Russia.
569 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 46 against, 49 abstain from voting.

11. 14 February 2022

The European Parliament approves 1.2 billion euros of financial aid to Ukraine.
598 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 53 against, 43 abstain from voting.

12. 1 March 2022

The European Parliament calls for imposing stringent sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Parliament also wants to initiate talks with Ukraine about the country’s entry into EU membership. The vote takes place immediately after a speech, via video link, by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenski.
637 MEPs vote in favour of the motion, 13 against, 26 abstain from voting.

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Kremlin’s spokesperson

Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaff explicitly chooses the Kremlin’s side. On 20 January of this year he switched allegiances from PVV (‘Party for Democracy’) to Forum voor Democratie (‘Forum for Democracy’). He consistently voted against any motion condemning Russia before this party switch and has firmly stuck with this stance since, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This puts him in the select company of the 13 MEPs who voted against the motion of 1 March.

De Graaff did not respond to questions put to him by Follow the Money, but did upload two videos, one in Dutch and one in English, where he sounds like a spokesperson for the Kremlin: ‘The EU and NATO have advanced to Russia’s borders. [..] Russia’s future is at risk. [..] All sanctions must be withdrawn, the EU needs to tighten its economic bonds with Russia, such as by importing Russian gas via Nord Stream 2.’

JA21’s parliamentary party is made up of representatives who left Forum voor Democratie (FvD) in late 2020. Their voting patterns did not change as a result. Rob Roos, Rob Rooken and Michiel Hoogeveen (who replaced Derk-Jan Eppink when he won a seat in the Dutch House of Representatives) consistently abstain from voting on anything concerning Russia. On Navalny’s poisoning and arrest, or on the election fraud and the violence in Belarus, JA21 made the ‘pragmatic’ statement that the European Parliament had no say in these matters.

FvD supports Kremlin, JA21 decides not to speak out

Asked to elaborate on his voting behaviour, Michiel Hoogeveen stated that the European Parliament should have no say about foreign policy, which is why he opted to press the neutral ‘abstain’ button in those votes. ‘The rhetoric isn’t helpful, either,’said the JA21 MEP. ‘Parliament takes us members on constant journeys across the globe, from votes about minorities in Uganda to votes about human rights in Myanmar, acting like the world’s headmaster. I am not Ugandan, I am not living in Uganda, and I would not want to be.’ 

​Surprisingly, the three JA21 MEPs in Brussels did vote in favour of the motion accepted in Parliament following the Russian invasion. Why this change of heart in foreign policy? ‘We do make exceptions, for instance when it’s about Israel or Iran, because then you do have to take a stance. Our approach is pragmatic. Putin put something in motion, so we took a stance. It is a flagrant breach of Ukraine’s integrity and in situations like that the West has to act in unity.’

Pleasure trips and fake observers 

The votes that were analysed featured, on average, over a hundred MEPs who rejected the motion; over half of them by voting against, the remainder by abstaining. The start of the invasion marks a clear change of direction, which shows in the vote of 1 March, when only 39 representatives refused to support the motion (13 by voting against it and 26 by abstaining).

All examined motions were accepted with huge majorities, which brings up the question whether Moscow benefits from the resistance of a tiny minority of the European Parliament’s 705 members.

A tried and tested method to take advantage of EU parliamentarians is to deploy them as election observers

In a study commissioned by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies published in 2015, author Antonis Klapsis asserts that European right-wing parties are useful to the Kremlin, because they can play ‘a destabilising role in internal politics’. Some parliamentarians are, for instance, popular guests on Russian state television. Videos of these appearances are no longer available on YouTube, because the EU decided to block Russian broadcasters such as RT and Sputnik starting 2 March. ‘We will not allow advocates for the Kremlin to spread toxic lies to justify Putin’s war,’ argued European Commission chair Ursula von der Leyen on this matter.

Another tried and tested method to take advantage of EU parliamentarians is to deploy them as election observers. An investigation by EUobserver found that on 30 June 2020 a chartered plane, carrying five French MEPs, landed at the airport of Simferopol in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. These partisans of Marine Le Pen did not attend on behalf of the European Parliament, but had been invited by Moscow.

Later expense claims submitted by French MEP Thierry Mariani, retrieved from the European Parliament website, showed that on this trip he met with Vladimir Konstantinov, the Russian-Ukrainian Chairman of the State Council of Crimea. Konstantinov has been on the EU’s sanction list since 2014.

​Russia held a referendum on 2 July 2020, effecting a change to the Russian constitution which enables Putin to stay in power until 2036. The attendance of European ‘election observers’ gave rise to the impression that the international community certified the referendum result, despite independent observers not having been allowed to be present.

Similarly, EU parliamentarians were present in Crimea in 2014 when it held a referendum, labelled by the EU as illegal, about Crimea joining Russia. During Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2021, French MEPs posing as ‘election observers’, came out claiming that ‘the West could learn a thing or two from the way Russia organises elections’.

Le Rassemblement National’s sudden change of heart

There are also MEPs who love being lavished with trips to Moscow for all kinds of speaking engagements. In March 2021, for instance, Thierry Mariani travelled business class to the Russian capital and stayed in a five-star hotel to speak at an event named ‘Struggle for Peace – Lessons from History’. While there, Mariani met with Russian member of parliament Leonid Slutsky, whose name has been on the EU’s sanction list since 2014.

How often other MEPs are in contact with Russians on the sanction list is hard to check. A lack of stringent rules and regulations about reporting such contacts means that information published on the European Parliament website about meetings, trips and financial interests is scarce.

Not unclear, however, is the prominence of the French representatives who were in Crimea in 2020 in FTM’s investigation into voting behaviours. Virginie Joron, Hervé Juvin, Jean-Lin Lacapelle, Philippe Olivier and Thierry Mariani all consistently voted against any criticism of Russia – until March this year. It was allegedly Marine Le Pen herself who intervened, as Brussels news website Politico reported. That said, the message apparently didn’t fully land with MEP Mariani, who instead decided to abstain from voting.

The Germans drop off 

‘We have a desire to see our children alive. We fight to survive. We fight to be equal members of Europe.’ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the European Parliament via video link on 1 March. ‘We are the same as you. Show that you support us, show that you are Europeans, and that life will win over death and light will win over darkness.’ Zelensky combatively raised his fist as EU parliamentarians in Brussels – many of whom wearing white t-shirts featuring the Ukrainian flag printed on the back – give him a standing ovation.

Absent were the representatives of German right-wing extremists Alternative für Deutschland. While the Kremlin has always been able to count on these ten MEPs’ support, on this particular day, not even a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, things were different. Eight of them were no-shows.

Just like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Alternative für Deutschland has suddenly sought to distance itself from the Kremlin since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. All other parties that used to gush about Putin had already distanced themselves prior to this.

Putin supporter Matteo Salvini’s Lega has already been denouncing Russia for a while

Italian party Lega (‘League’) has, for the past year, obscured its love for Russia by no longer voting against motions in the European Parliament that condemn Russia. Matteo Salvini – who in the past was spotted in Moscow and the European Parliament wearing a t-shirt featuring a picture of Putin, and who on many occasions declared his preference for the Russian president over Western leaders like Angela Merkel and Barack Obama – is, however, still in charge of the party.

Matteo Salvini made a sudden reappearance on 8 March in Przemyśl, a small city in Poland, near the border with Ukraine. The Italian politician was there to show that he sided with Ukraine rather than with Russian president Putin, who he had lauded so much in the past. This attempt by Salvini to possibly rehabilitate himself turned into an embarrassing failure.

The Lega leader was seen standing next to mayor Wojciech Bakun, the collar of his coat pulled up. ‘I have a present for you,’ the mayor said as he pulled a t-shirt out from under his coat. It was a white t-shirt with a picture of Putin on the front, not dissimilar to the t-shirts worn by Salvini in the European Parliament and during a visit to Moscow.

Badun insisted that Salvini put on the shirt before visiting the refugee camp at the border, ‘to witness there what your friend Putin has done’. He was speaking in Polish, so Salvini needed a moment to catch on to what was happening; then, after trying – and failing – to interrupt the mayor, Salvini turned around and walked off. Badun draped the t-shirt over the microphones put up by the gathered journalists and, in English, snapped at Salvini: ‘I have no respect for you.’

Putin’s Hungarian friend 

Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán’s party Fidesz (‘Hungarian Civic Alliance’) has been operating under the radar for some time now, joining the majority in the European Parliament in its criticism of Moscow. Meanwhile Orbán is the European leader who maintains the closest bond with Putin. During the corona crisis, Hungary was the first country to buy the Russian Sputnik vaccine, despite the European Medicines Agency (EMA) not approving it yet. Orbán’s most recent visit to the Kremlin was mere weeks before war broke out in Ukraine.

The Hungarian prime minister has since distanced himself from Putin and comes out in agreement with the EU sanctions against Russia. ‘Orbán is an opportunist. At this point, siding with Russia would be unbeneficial to him and a sensitive issue with the electorate,’ explained Daniel Gros of Brussels think tank CEPS, speaking to American network CNBC. Hungary has parliamentary elections coming up in early April

The left wing

The left-wing parties in the European Parliament have united in parliamentary group The Left. Just like the right-wing radicals of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, they traditionally voted against or abstained from voting on motions condemning Russia. And just like on the right wing, their support for the Kremlin has been waning since the invasion of Ukraine.

The conclusion drawn from conversations with representatives on the far left as well as from their contributions to debates, is that their main motivation is pacifism. ‘You cannot win a war by waging a war,’ said prominent French MEP Manon Aubry in the parliamentary debate on 1 March.

This doesn’t take away from the fact that a number of left-wing MEPs have expressed viewpoints about the US and NATO that strongly resemble statements that have come from the Kremlin. Irish representatives Clare Daly and Mick Wallace have shown to be particularly adept at this, the Irish Times discovered. Time and again Daly and Wallace have tabled amendments justifying the occupation of Crimea or undermining the Dutch-led investigation into the downing of flight MH17.

Just as their fellow representatives on the far right have changed their tune since the invasion of Ukraine, so have The Left. A spokesperson told Follow the Money that The Left ‘condemns in the strongest possible terms’ the Russian invasion. ‘It is a war of aggression and a serious breach of international law.’ In the vote on 1 March, six of the 39 left-wing MEPs voted against the Ukraine motion, while eleven abstained from voting.  

SPD’s love has cooled 

It remains to be seen if the current turnarounds among the Parliament’s most left-wing and right-wing parties constitutes a permanent one. Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán’s change of direction appears to be a temporary one, driven mostly by electoral motives. Powerful German social democrats SPD (‘Social Democratic Party of Germany’), meanwhile, appear to have decided upon a permanent change of course.

The SPD has a long-standing tradition of understanding for and openness towards Moscow. This harks all the way back to former chancellor Willy Brand’s foreign policy towards the east known as the Neue Ostpolitik. The most painful chapter in the history of apologism for Russian aggression is the close relationship between Putin and German former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, chairman of the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream, the pipeline connecting Russia to Germany.

When the European Parliament voted on a motion condemning the build-up of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine on 16 December 2021, eight of SPD’s sixteen MEPs voted against and four abstained. Two-and-a-half months later, the love for Russia appeared to have cooled, as all sixteen SPD representatives voted in support of Ukraine.

Led by SPD chancellor Olaf Scholz, Germany agreed to cutting off a number of Russian banks from the international payments system SWIFT; a move that the government in Berlin had initially resisted. Approval of pipeline Nord Stream 2 has also been suspended for the time being. Scholz has even eased Germany’s hesitancy to invest in its own army.

The future will show if the German social democrats are acting from conviction or in a knee-jerk response to a crisis situation.

Translation: Jo Hughes.