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Dark money and backlash: Covering the European Parliamentary elections 2019

We knew that ultra-conservative, far-right and anti-democratic forces were seeking to influence the outcome. So we teamed up with journalists across Europe to investigate them.

8 July 2019
Still from video: ‘Solidarity is in the air’.
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Daniele Napolitano.

We knew that secretive, unaccountable networks rooted in the US and Russia were fuelling ultra-conservative, far-right and anti-democratic forces in Europe, and in particular were seeking to influence the outcome of the May 2019 European parliamentary elections.

And we had the right journalists, networks and groundwork in place to investigate this further. Our Dark Money Investigations team had spent two years tracing the secret funding and networks that fuelled the Brexit campaign, and which continue to influence British politics. Their work has led to multiple investigations by criminal, regulatory and parliamentary authorities; forced changes in the law on political transparency; and prompted follow-up coverage across the global media. At the same time, our Tracking the Backlash team led by Claire Provost had been following the movements that seek to roll back women’s and LGBTIQ rights globally. Unsurprisingly, we had spotted that many of these networks and interests overlap. And we had gathered a trove of leads – including leaked documents, data analysis and intelligence gathered from our networks on the ground – which gave us a head start.

Kick off

We set both openDemocracy teams, plus other core editorial staff, to work full-time on the European elections. We also quickly built out a continent-wide network of freelance journalists, hiring reporters based in Spain, Italy and Germany, and collaborating with journalists at Source Material, L'Espresso, Internazionale, Taz (Germany) and Vanity Fair, as well as with researchers at UnHackDemocracy Europe and Investigate Europe.

We kicked off with an ambitious and forensic data project, which revealed how US Christian extremists linked to Donald Trump have poured millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe. Over forty MEPs wrote to the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament referring to our articles and demanding action to protect the integrity of the European elections. Two weeks later, 51 MPs and other lawmakers from national legislatures across Europe wrote to the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, this time demanding an urgent investigation. The story was covered by CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle and other outlets across 15 countries including Hungary, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

Then we sent undercover reporters to the ultra-conservative Christian World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy: a summit which Matteo Salvini, a headline speaker this year, described as “the Europe we like”. Our main report from the conference itself was published in The Face, the newly relaunched lifestyle and fashion magazine (and was also cited by the Guardian).

The intelligence we gathered there led us straight to Spain for an undercover investigation into the Madrid-based campaign group CitizenGo – which we revealed, on the eve of the Spanish elections, to be working as a de-facto 'Super PAC' to boost Vox and other far-right parties across Europe.

It was another story covered across the global media, including in two pieces in the Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Taz and Focus in Germany; Internazionale in Italy, Polish Newsweek and in Spain by the national newspaper El Periodico, the online journal La Marea and lots of local press across the country.

Former US senator Russ Feingold (who sponsored campaign finance efforts with John McCain) called our investigations "frightening" and warned: "Europe has an opportunity to get ahead of this and not make the same mistakes that were made in the US."

He also noted: “There is a great irony in this. [Far-right parties] are trying to appeal to ultra nationalist sentiments but they are using tactics that are completely contrary to the sovereignty of those countries. These are international actors, oligarchs and others who are trying to control the political processes of these countries. Even if you are a nationalist, one would think you would be a little bit concerned about that.”

Migration pivot

Reflecting on these insights, we decided to pivot from our planned story pipeline,investing resources in a big cross-border data project, which revealed how hundreds of European citizens (farmers, priests, firefighters and elderly women, not only activists) have been ‘criminalised’ for helping migrants, particularly in places where the far-right holds national or local power. The resulting story, published the weekend before Europeans voted, had wide pickup globally – not only in the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but across the world, including Turkey, Lebanon, Cameroon, Morocco, Egypt and the United States. Journalists, researchers and NGOs from several countries also asked us to share the underlying dataset to facilitate further follow-up work on this theme. These include a reporter at PRI who looked at similar trends in the US and heavily cited our research; the Migration Policy Group which is working on a key report for European policymakers; and the Church of Sweden..

This story, as well as our collaboration with Source Material on attacks against the Pope and on the Brexit party (see below), enabled us to significantly build out our networks, reach a diverse range of audiences and to build a wider range of alliances.

Unhacking Hungarian democracy

Also in the final days before the European elections, we broke a major story which went to the heart of Europe’s far-right electoral surge. Working with UnHackDemocracy Europe, we published a detailed report of hundreds of allegations of electoral fraud which appear to have helped Viktor Orbán’s landslide ‘supermajority’ victory in Hungary last year – and which outlined how Hungary’s European elections were vulnerable to even wider electoral fraud.

UnHackDemocracy Europe is a new, volunteer-run NGO which had approached us with large amounts of raw data, but very resource to turn this wealth of information into a publishable, legally-sound piece of journalism. Working closely with them over a number of weeks, we were able to turn their research into a highly impactful story which was reported by BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’, the BBC World Service and RFI as well as outlets in Hungary itself, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and the US.

The full story list

Other stories published as part of this short, intensive project period revealed:

Painting the bigger picture about Europe’s far-right

In addition to our investigative reporting, we also produced a number of op-eds, videos and infographics which contextualised our findings as part of a bigger, global picture.

A Project Syndicate op-ed from our Editor in Chief, detailing ‘America’s dark-money bid for Europe’s soul’, has so far appeared in 15 publications, across 13 countries and 5 languages.

Another, ‘What the far-right really mean when they talk about taking back ‘Christian Europe’ was syndicated in the UK Independent newspaper and by Business Insider (Germany). Our Editor in Chief also contributed to a post-election special feature by the Irish Examiner, and has co-authored (with Claire Provost) a piece on the far-right in Europe in the New York Review of Books.

We also have a forthcoming feature in the print issue of the newly-relaunched British fashion and lifestyle magazine, The Face. And our editors and writers continue to be interviewed by media outlets globally about our findings.

Reach

In all, our stories running up to the European elections were picked up by media outlets in 50 different countries globally, between them publishing in 20 different languages.

On openDemocracy.net, the articles in this project had attracted over 165,000 page views by 30th June. The most-read article was about how ‘Trump-linked US Christian ‘fundamentalists’ has pour millions of ‘dark money’ into Europe, boosting the far right’.. The second was'Fresh evidence of Hungary vote-rigging raises concerns of fraud in European elections’.

Across Facebook and Twitter, the four films we made promoting our European elections work had over 20,000 views, and the infographics we produced (see below, on the migration story and on the $51m dark money from the US) together attracted over 23,000 hits.

Dark money from US Christian right infographic

Criminalised for Kindness infographic - hundreds of Europeans targeted for helping migrants
Infographic: Hundreds of Europeans ‘criminalised’ for helping migrants | Carys Boughton

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Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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