From Brussels a group of Spanish eurodeputies is frantically working to counter the rumors and fake news spread about the Catalan independence movement. One of the most active is Esteban González Pins (Valencia, 1964), the vice president of the European People’s Party Group. He spoke to EL PAÍS about his work and the impact of misinformation on Spain and the European Union.
Question. Have you noticed an increase in the amount of misinformation relating to the crisis in Catalonia?
Russia is interested in destabilizing the European Union
Answer. The images that came out of the October 1 referendum in Catalonia made a huge impression on Europe. But nothing more. Europe saw them with the same alarm as we did, because nobody likes to see such images. But public opinion in Europe has not been concerned about possible political prisoners in Spain, or the question of exiled political leaders, or even the possibility that Puigdemont could be a political refugee. Everyone agrees that Spain has a working democracy and that we uphold the rule of law. There has never been any doubt of that. The debate over political prisoners is only a debate in Catalonia. It hasn’t crossed the Pyrenees.
Q. Has there been fake news published and spread by foreign media, in particular by Russia?
A. Fake news was prepared before the referendum and during the referendum we saw it explode. This is what caused a reaction – not just from the Spanish government but also Spanish media outlets that wanted to defend the truth. And today, I don’t think there is a single respectable media organization in Europe that would allow fake news about Catalonia.
Q. Catalonia has not been the only target of fake news. We have seen the misinformation spread about Brexit, in the German elections. Are you worried that within time this meddling machine could set its sights on Spain, but in other areas, such as the general elections?
Everyone agrees that Spain has a working democracy and that we uphold the rule of law
A. The European Commission, under the supervision of Federica Mogherini, has a department exclusively dedicated to fake news from Russia, among other countries. Within this department, there are people working specifically in fake news related to Catalonia. The first time this was detected was in 2016. It was circulated by Russian media and said that Catalonia was going to recognize the independence of the Crimean Republic. From then on, we have seen in Russian news and social media stories like, for instance, that Spanish is taught as a foreign language in Catalonia or an interview with a pro-independence eurodeputy claiming that the Spanish army was abusing the people.
Q. One of the problems with the department is that it receives no specific funding. Will this be fixed?
A. There is going to be more effort to secure extra funding from the department similar to the one NATO has, which also does not receive sufficient funding for the work it does. We are not talking about a future problem. We have to remember that the Russian networks influenced the Brexit vote. We have to remember that Marine Le Pen’s party in France was funded by Russian banks, and that just days before the French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron’s emails were leaked, and that the vote recount in Holland was done manually to avoid possible Russian interference in an electronic recount. We need to be very alert. What happened in Catalonia and with fake news from Russia is not the exception in Europe and there is no reason that it will be the last attack against Spain’s democracy.
Q. This center is affiliated with NATO but does not depend on the Central Command. It receives support from countries such as France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Would it be a good idea for Spain to join to protect itself from this disinformation machine?
A. Yes. I think that Spain today has enough reasons to join the NATO center and ask for or wait for NATO to also protect us against these kinds of attacks, just as it is protecting other democracies in the west.
Q. What interest does Russia have in seeing Catalonia secede from Spain?
We have seen in Russian news stories that Spanish is taught as a foreign language
A. No interest. What Russia is interested in is destabilizing the European Union. The European Union is Putin’s main competitor. In economic, but more importantly in ideological and moral terms. We are a mirror that reflects a different reality to the one Putin wants to create.
Q. Does europhobia – the idea that Europe, the European Union, are decadent, bureaucratic entities where nothing works – also help Russia?
A. Without a doubt. The extreme left and the extreme right like to misinform the public about what the European Union represents. Europe has enemies within and outside the European Union. We need to think of the EU as a democratic island, surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Brexit and Donald Trump’s United States.
English version by Melissa Kitson.