• I would like to thank the Parliament for this most urgent plenary debate. We will have elections to the European Parliament in May 2019, and 50 various elections will have taken place by 2020. The last few years have been a succession of wake-up calls: we have to adjust the protection of the integrity of our elections to the digital age. And we have to protect our democratic processes from new ways of manipulation by third countries or private interests.

  • The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how personal data can be used for profiling and targeting of voters, and how valuable our data protection rules are.

  • We have seen the spread of fake news or disinformation coordinated on an unprecedented scale, including from outside the EU.

  • We have learned of hacking of candidates and cyberattacks on elections around the world, including in Europe.

  • Crucial electoral rules have been breached or circumvented, in particular existing rules on transparency of campaign financing. Investigations are ongoing into allegations of dark financing from undisclosed, third country sources.

  • The most cited source of activities interfering with elections in Europe is Russia. But others are learning from Russia: we have observed other countries and private interests increase their capabilities for election interference.

  • Given the very nature of our Union, electoral interference in one Member State affects the EU as a whole. National authorities cannot address these threats by working in isolation, nor can private sector self-regulation solve it all.

  • Soon we will publish the results of a special Eurobarometer on elections and democracy. Already now I can share with you that it shows that Europeans are worried: 73% are concerned about disinformation or misinformation online in the pre-election period. 81% are in favour of online social networks being fully transparent about political content online and about who is paying for them. 80% are in favour of online social networks making clear the amount of money they received from political parties.

  • The Commission and the European External Action Service are working hand in hand to define and implement an appropriate EU wide response.

  • In the long term, our objective should be that our respective societies all become more resilient and capable of defending themselves against disinformation. This means for example improving media literacy, access to quality journalism, supporting independent fact-checkers and working with online platforms on how to prevent disinformation campaigns online without restricting freedom of expression and speech.

  • In the short-term, our priority should be a coordinated response to the threats against the upcoming European and national elections. The recent election package adopted by the Commission includes the establishment of elections cooperation networks at national and at EU level; a guidance on the application of data protection rules in the electoral context; Recommendations on greater transparency in paid online political advertisements and communication; strengthened cybersecurity; diligent enforcement of existing electoral rules; awareness raising; and a legislative proposal allowing to sanction the misuse of personal data for electoral purposes. It aims to put in place an effective exchange of information between the responsible Member States’ authorities to make sure that they learn from the different experiences that are available. It is at the end of the day about giving people a real choice by shedding light on the debate that is going on. And shedding light is the surest means of crowding out lies and disinformation.

  • I encourage the co-legislators to complete their work on it as soon as possible so that it is in force before the elections.

  • We need to improve our analytical capabilities to detect, analyse and expose disinformation campaigns in cooperation with EU Member States and with the intelligence community working on hybrid threats.

  • Allow me to give you a quick overview of our follow up actions.

  • The Commission has written to the Member States urging them to set up their national election networks and to identify appropriate single points of contact by the end of this month.We will convene the first meeting of the European election network in January.

  • This network will facilitate the fast exchange of information and best practices, but also provide support to Member States in addressing the main areas of concern: coordination of all relevant national authorities involved in the protection of elections, cybersecurity, strategic communication, data protection and hybrid threats.

  • In the area of cybersecurity, the Commission organized in October a High-Level Conference, bringing together for the first time 70 representatives of Member States national electoral and cybersecurity authorities.

  • The results of this important conference will feed into the 2018 Colloquium on fundamental rights, which Commission in November, will be dedicated to "Democracy in the European Union".

  • The Commission welcomes that the leading online platforms and representatives of the online advertising sector have agreed on a self-regulatory Code of Practice to address online disinformation. The Commission is monitoring closely its implementation.

  • However, this is not enough. In June this year, the European Council tasked the Commission and the External Action Service to develop an action plan on tackling disinformation. This Action Plan, which we are currently working on, will outline specific proposals for a coordinated EU response to the challenge of disinformation.

  • We will build on existing initiatives, such as the work of the East Stratcom Task Force, which was created in 2015 to address Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns. It will also build on the work of the Hybrid Fusion Cell, as well as the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. An important part in their work is showing who is behind the disinformation attacks that are aimed against EU interests.

  • Addressing disinformation also means that we need to improve our ability to make our voice heard, to pass our messages and to tell our story. We therefore need to strengthen our strategic communications capacities, both within the EU and abroad.

  • Finally, close coordination of our efforts with the European Parliament in the run up to the 2019 elections is absolutely crucial.

I trust we can rely on your support.