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Catherine Ashton Discusses EU-Trump Relationship and Russian Disinformation

By Carrie Snurr

The European Union has made strides in recent years to create a more unified foreign and security policy but it has reached a crossroads with Britain’s vote to exit the EU, U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and autocratic governments in Turkey and Russia.

In a conversation on Nov. 16 with Jane Harman, director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Catherine Ashton, Baroness Upholland and former vice president of the European Commission, addressed issues including Russian disinformation and ties between the EU and United States.

“I think the EU would probably feel that it’s still not entirely certain where the [Trump] administration wants to develop its relationship with Europe as a group of countries,” Ashton said.

“I think we’ll see more as next year goes on how it develops in terms of common issues, common threats, common concerns – whether there is a stronger sense of a U.S. European strategy than I have at the moment.”

Jane Harman Catherine Ashton Woodrow Wilson International Center
Jane Harman, left, and Catherine Ashton discuss crossroads the EU faces today including rise of disinformation and the Brexit vote. (Photo: Wilson Center)

Trump has criticized the EU, calling it “very protectionist,” and has attacked its policies on climate change. Last summer, in a highly criticized move, Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement in which countries pledged to reduce carbon emissions in certain timeframes.

Ashton also addressed disinformation spread online, often through Facebook and Twitter, which has largely been associated with Russia and Russian operatives, during the 2016 U.S. election and especially during the Brexit campaign.

"I don’t want to give [the Russians] too much credit either for what they managed to do,” she said. “I think that the issues that created in Britain the vote to leave the European Union, some of them are very deep and long-term. People have, for a long, long time, wondered what this project was about, and successive governments have not really answered that question satisfactorily.”

Many members of the “Vote Leave” campaign also spread false messages before the Brexit vote. Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster, which purported to show migrants entering the UK, really depicted a line of migrants at the Croatia-Slovenia border, according to The Independent.

Catherine Ashton Wilson Center EU
Ashton explains that Russian-linked disinformation may have influenced the Brexit vote but emphasizes that Russia should not get too much credit for the leave vote. (Photo: Wilson Center)

Harman cited a recent New York Times article which stated that over 150,000 Russian-associated Twitter accounts were used during the Brexit campaign to spread pro-leave messages with at least 400 accounts directly tied to the Kremlin.

“We are in a very interesting phase of a new kind of small ‘w’ warfare, which is about the power of information and access to it,” Ashton said. “My generation gives way to the younger generation who acquire knowledge in completely different ways. The problem for governments is we’re way behind in trying to work out how we manage that.”

She added that it would be surprising if governments looking to influence voters or young people did not use new information technologies like Twitter in order to do so. She said new technologies present more potential threats to personal information and create more channels to spread false or misleading news.

“We have to be able to educate people to be able to discern what it is they’re getting,” Ashton said. “Agree or not agree, the political spectrum being what it is today, it’s not about trying to make people think one way but it’s allowing them to think properly that this is what they’re receiving and this is what it means.”

Russia has been linked to other disinformation campaigns in other countries but most notoriously in the United States 2016 election and in the Crimean referendum, which was largely criticized by the international community.

“I often say that the problems are digital, but politicians are analog,” Harman said. “Our solutions are laundry lists of ‘you can do this’ and you ‘can’t do that,’ and if you’re a kid hacker, first of all, you pay no attention to that, and second of all, you can run circles around that kind of shopping list. So, I think we’re pretty hopeless and challenged in the policy dimension.”


Carrie Snurr is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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