Citizens’ enquiries to the European Parliament in 2017

Torn piece of scroll uncovering 2017 review

Pixelbliss / Fotolia

On a daily basis, citizens from all across the EU and the wider world address the European Parliament to request information, express opinions or suggest ideas on an extensive range of topics. The Citizens’ Enquiries Unit (Ask EP) provides answers to citizens on the issues raised. In 2017, citizens put more than 52 000 questions, suggestions and comments to the European Parliament or its President.

Topics of the year

A central topic of the year was the situation in Catalonia, which was discussed by the European Parliament and the European Commission in a plenary debate entitled ‘Constitution, rule of law and fundamental rights in Spain in the light of the events in Catalonia’. The ongoing Brexit negotiations was another subject of significant interest, with questions often linked to the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU.

As for the last few years, migration policy both at the EU and at the Member State level was an important issue for citizens addressing Ask EP. Citizens wanted to know how the EU was reacting to both an increase in the number of asylum seekers and migrants, as well on how to tackle its root causes. In addition, many citizens addressed the European Parliament on the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union to dismiss the case brought by Slovakia and Hungary on the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers, which the two Member States had opposed.

Also in central Europe, the situation of the rule of law and democracy in Poland triggered a considerable number of reactions from citizens, who wrote to the Parliament expressing their concerns on the separation of powers in the country and the independence of the judiciary.

Concerns on human health relating to the use of glyphosate-based herbicides was another key issue. The European Parliament received many comments from citizens requesting it to take action and reject the renewal of glyphosate in the EU list of approved active substances.

Moving outside of the EU, citizens turned to the European Parliament for answers on the situation in non-EU countries such as in Turkey, Ukraine, Syria, Russia, Venezuela, the Philippines and Iran. Citizens also wrote on the EU-Canada Trade Agreement, approved last year by the European Parliament.

Frequent themes

As in previous years, the functioning and activities of the European Parliament sparked citizens’ interest. Many citizens wanted to know about the activities of Members of the European Parliament and how to contact them, as well as how to exercise the right of petition, how to visit the institution, and how to apply for a job or a traineeship in the EU institutions.

Another fundamental concern frequently shared by citizens writing to our service relates to employment, social affairs and inclusion policies and activities, in particular regarding pension schemes, social-security benefits, working conditions, persons with disabilities and health care systems.

Once again, citizens expressed their views to the European Parliament on human rights around the world and the fight against terrorism, the fight against corruption in some EU Member States, the EU’s climate change policy and its consequences, air quality, waste management and water policy and the production of foie gras inside the EU.

Twice a year, wintertime and summertime arrangements, and the subsequent changing of the clocks, prompt citizens to share their views with the European Parliament, both in favour and against these arrangements.

Organised civil society

As the European Parliament is a key player in the EU decision-making processes, it regularly receives suggestions and comments from civil society actors. Some of the main topics in 2017 included animal testing, with many citizens requesting a Europe-wide moratorium on the use of animals in scientific research, and the visit of the Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee to Poland, where Members of the European Parliament observed the situation of women’s rights in the country.

A further topic of interest was the recommendation addressed by the European Parliament to the Council on the so-called ‘global gag’ rule, which ‘prevents international organisations from receiving US global health assistance if they provide, counsel for, refer to or advocate for abortion services’.

Furthermore, citizens wrote on the proposal for a regulation concerning the respect for private life and the protection of personal data in electronic communications which is awaiting its first reading in the plenary. The proposal seeks to achieve the modernisation of the Union data protection legal framework started by the General Data Protection Regulation.

Continue to put your questions to the Citizens’ Enquiries Unit (Ask EP). We reply to you in the EU language that you use to write to us.

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EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement [International Agreements in Progress]

Written by Martin Russell,

EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement

© De Visu / Fotolia

The free trade agreement (FTA) with Vietnam has been described as the most ambitious deal of its type ever concluded between the EU and a developing country. Not only will it eliminate over 99 % of customs duties on goods, it will also open up Vietnamese services markets to EU companies and strengthen protection of EU investments in the country.

According to European Commission figures, the FTA could boost Vietnam’s booming economy by as much as 15 % of GDP, with Vietnamese exports to Europe growing by over one third. For the EU, the agreement is an important stepping stone to a wider EU-south-east Asia trade deal.

Despite the obvious economic benefits of the FTA for Vietnam, some of its more vulnerable manufacturing sectors may suffer from competition with the EU. NGOs have also criticised the EU for pursuing closer ties with a politically repressive regime known for its human rights abuses, although the deal includes some safeguards against negative outcomes.

Although the content of the FTA was already agreed in 2015, ratification has been delayed by a 2017 opinion of the European Court of Justice. The Court argued that some aspects of the EU-Singapore FTA, which is similar to the Vietnam FTA, are ‘mixed competences’, meaning that the FTA as it stands will have to be ratified not only by the EU but also by the 28 Member States. The Commission and Council are now considering whether to modify the agreement so that parts of it can be ratified more speedily by the EU alone.

international agreements in progress - step negotiation

Read the complete briefing on ‘EU-Vietnam free trade agreement‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

EU-Vietnam trade – facts and figures

EU-Vietnam trade – facts and figures

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Palm oil: economic and environmental impacts

Written by Martin Russell,

Economical and versatile, palm oil has become the world’s most widely used vegetable oil. However, its production comes at a heavy environmental cost, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two main producers. Efforts to make its production more sustainable still have a long way to go.

Palm oil: a vital commodity

Plantation workers prepare to unload freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches at a collection point.

© photomagically / Fotolia

Oil palm trees are native to West Africa, but were introduced to tropical regions of Southeast Asia and Latin America in the late 19th century. Oil extracted from the fruit was traditionally used in Africa for cooking, but has now found a wider range of uses: as a substitute for animal fats such as butter in baked products, soaps and cosmetics, or as a basis for biodiesel. Around half of packaged products in supermarkets contain palm oil. Although palm oil is not particularly healthy (it contains higher levels of saturated fats than most other vegetable oils), it has many advantages: compared to soybean (the world’s second most widely consumed vegetable oil after palm oil), it requires only one-tenth as much land, one-seventh as much fertiliser, one-fourteenth as much pesticide and one-sixth of the energy to produce the same quantity of oil, and is therefore very cheap. In addition, palm oil is highly resistant to oxidation, making it suitable for frying and giving it a long shelf life. As a result, consumption of palm oil has doubled over the past 15 years to nearly 8 kg per inhabitant of the globe, and shows no signs of slowing down. Until the 1960s oil palms were mainly grown in Africa, but since then production has shifted to Southeast Asia: according to FAO statistics, Indonesia (53 % of global output) and Malaysia (29 %) are the leading producers, followed by Thailand (4 %), Nigeria (2.6 %), Colombia (2.3 %) and Ecuador (1 %).

The economic and social impact of oil palm cultivation

Palm oil is the main agricultural export of Indonesia and Malaysia, generating 10 % and 5 % respectively of their exports. The sector provides employment for 721 000 smallholders and labourers in Malaysia, and 4 million in Indonesia; a further 11 million in the two countries are indirectly dependent on it. Most oil palm jobs are in remote rural areas, where alternative employment is scarce, thus helping to promote rural development and alleviate poverty. However, not all have benefited; in both countries, indigenous communities often lack legal documents certifying their ownership of land, and there are many legal conflicts between oil palm companies granted government concessions in forested areas, and the people who have used the land for centuries. In some cases, this has led to local people losing access to land and resources. As a result of such problems, in one survey nearly half of 187 villages in Indonesian Borneo were opposed to palm oil companies. There are also serious concerns about abusive labour conditions on some plantations.

The environmental impact of oil palm

An even bigger concern is the environmental impact. A European Commission study (2013) estimates that between 1990 and 2008, 5.5 million hectares (an area nearly twice the size of Belgium) of forest were lost to oil palm plantations, including 3.1 million in Indonesia and 1.4 million in Malaysia. This process continues, with around half a million hectares of additional plantations in Indonesia, and 100 000 in Malaysia every year; much of this expansion is happening at the expense of the region’s dwindling rainforests.

Deforestation is a major concern for several reasons. Compared to rainforests, palm oil plantations support only one fifth as many animal species. By eating into the habitats of the orang-utan and Sumatran tiger (both critically endangered species) as well as numerous smaller animals, they threaten biodiversity. At the same time, oil palms have less than 20 % as much above-ground biomass as rainforest trees, and a correspondingly lower capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That effect is exacerbated for the estimated one-third of Indonesian and Malaysian plantations located on waterlogged carbon-rich peaty soils. Draining such soils, which is necessary for the oil palms to grow, exposes the peat to oxygen, causing it to decompose and release huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Peat drainage in Southeast Asia, largely in order to clear land for oil palms, is estimated to cause the equivalent of 2 % of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

Forest fires are another even bigger contributor to global warming and a recurrent environmental disaster in Indonesia. Such fires can occur naturally, but many are started deliberately – mostly by smallholders practising ‘slash and burn‘ agriculture, but sometimes also by large plantation operators. In the dry season, fires can easily get of control, destroying huge tracts of forest. Around one-fifth of such fires can be directly attributed to palm oil, which also contributes indirectly, given that drained peat soils burn easily, helping fires to spread.

Some of Indonesia’s worst forest fires to date were in 2015. Over several weeks, Indonesia became the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, as fires destroyed an area almost the size of Belgium. Choking haze spread as far as Singapore, costing the Indonesian economy at least US$16 billion and causing as many as 100 000 premature deaths.

Producer country and EU efforts to make palm oil more sustainable

Indonesia has taken several measures to limit the social and environmental costs of palm oil, with varying results. For example, the One Map initiative aims to systematically record land ownership to prevent disputes between plantations and indigenous communities. In 2011, the government imposed a moratorium on issuing new permits for agricultural and logging activity in primary (not previously cleared) forests and peat lands, recently extended till May 2019; however, the moratorium has had little effect as large areas of forest are outside its scope, and in any case enforcement has been patchy. A few palm oil companies have been fined for their part in forest fires, but many more have escaped punishment.

In order to limit the need for new land, Malaysia hopes to raise output through increased productivity; however, there is no evidence of this happening, as palm oil yields per hectare have stagnated for several years. Planting palms on degraded land, on which forests have already been cleared or burned down, is an option, although one estimate suggests that in Indonesia just 0.3 million hectares of such land are suitable for oil palm – not nearly enough for the sector to avoid deforestation at its current rate of expansion.

Since 2014, EU law requires food products to list palm oil to be clearly identified as an ingredient on labels (and not merely as ‘vegetable oil’). France considered imposing a ‘Nutella tax’ on palm oil imports, but the proposal met with strong protests from Indonesia and Malaysia, and was dropped in 2016. In any case, deterring consumers from palm oil containing products may not help the environment given that other vegetable oils such as soy and rapeseed are also linked to large-scale deforestation.

Particularly controversial is the use of palm oil to manufacture biofuels. To reduce dependence on imported oil, Indonesia has set an ambitious target for 30 % palm oil blending in domestic fuels (Malaysia’s target is 15 %); for its part, the EU uses 45 % of its palm oil imports for biodiesel, and a further 15 % to produce heat and power. Given that at present more palm oil production is likely to mean more deforestation, total greenhouse gas emissions from palm biodiesel are probably higher than from fossil fuels. In January 2018, the European Parliament proposed amendments to the EU’s proposed directive on renewable energy, which if accepted by the Council would result in palm oil being phased out as a biofuel component by 2020.

Sustainable palm oil certification schemes

In its April 2017 resolution on palm oil and deforestation, the Parliament also recommends ensuring that all palm oil entering the EU is sustainable. Voluntary certification schemes already exist, of which the most widespread is the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The governments of eight EU countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom), as well as several major companies, have already committed to only buying from producers certified as sustainable. Among other things, RSPO standards include commitments not to clear primary forest, set off fires, or plant oil palms on land whose ownership is disputed. However, environmentalists argue that such commitments do not go far enough, as they do not ban deforestation in general. The European Parliament is in favour of a new certification scheme with tougher standards, to replace the RSPO and similar schemes. For its part, RSPO points out that higher standards would make it even harder to get producers on board; at present, just 19 % of global output is RSPO-certified, and most of this goes to Europe. Around two-thirds of the world’s palm oil is consumed in Asia, where there is less willingness to pay more for sustainable products. Moreover, even RSPO’s weak standards are frequently violated by the scheme’s certified producers, many of which use fire to clear land, or plant in areas claimed by indigenous communities without their consent. EU criticism has drawn a sharp response from producer countries, with Malaysia describing the proposed ban on palm oil in biofuels as ‘crop apartheid’ and threatening to boycott EU products.

Read this At a glance note on ‘Palm oil: economic and environmental impacts‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Prospects for e-democracy in Europe

Written by Gianluca Quaglio, Carys Lawrie and Nada Alkhayat,

Direct democracy


E-participation in politics is expanding worldwide, driven by the development of digital tools that can be used for citizen involvement – social media, deliberative software, e-voting systems – and growing access to the internet. In Europe, while many e-democratic projects provide a sense of involvement in the political process for participants and contribute to community building, there remains a lack of direct, or even indirect, political or policy impact.

Moreover, in recent decades, citizen involvement in the EU political process has improved, with direct elections to the European Parliament, and Parliament’s increased competences and legislative powers. However, the multilevel system of EU policy-making sometimes makes it difficult for European citizens to track responsibilities and to hold the EU institutions accountable for the outcomes of their policies.

The STOA study on ‘Prospects for e-democracy in Europe’ investigates how to implement e-democracy at the EU level in a manner that supports public debate, deliberation and community building, and also has an impact on political decision-making. The project, the major results of which are summarised in an In-Depth Analysis, aimed to determine the conditions under which digital tools can facilitate different forms of citizen involvement in decision-making processes, and explored how these tools can be successfully transferred to the EU level.

The study sets out the current European e-participation landscape through a literature review, presented in Part I, and case studies at the local, national and European levels, which make up Part II. These cases involved a number of different categories of digital tools: websites that monitor politics; both formal and informal agenda-setting tools, such as e‑petition sites; and both non-binding and binding decision-making tools, such as e‑voting within political parties or for national elections.

The project provided suitability assessments of a series of policy options, determining their chances of success in increasing participation and impacting decision-making at the EU level. As a result, a number of options for policy-makers are presented.

General actions for designing e-participation processes include promoting active links to existing policy, encouraging provision of feedback to participants, and ensuring the sustainability of the process itself. There are also options for improving existing tools, such as the European Citizens’ Initiative, Your Voice in Europe and the European Parliament’s e‑petition system. Finally, new e-participation tools are set out that could encourage e‑participation at an EU level and exploit the untapped potential of citizens’ involvement in numerous policy areas.

In the institutional arena, the options are: online engagement, principally through creating a public platform that allows citizens to pose questions to Members of the European Parliament and their staff; crowdsourcing of policy ideas by citizens for early-stage policy development in the European Commission; and monitoring platforms for Council decisions. Additionally, participatory e‑budgeting was identified as the policy option with the greatest impact on decision-making, with particular relevance to the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund. A full explanation of these options can be found in Part III, while the STOA Options Brief contains a succinct overview of the policy options.

Your opinion counts. Let us know what you think, get in touch via email or complete a survey. Surveys are available for all STOA studies (click on the title and follow the link).

Read the complete study on ‘Prospects for e-democracy in Europe‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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The Platform Economy [What Think Tanks are thinking]

Written by Marcin Grajewski,

Social media in election campaigning

@ Sepia 100 / Fotolia

The digital revolution is reshaping the world, changing people’s habits in communication, work, leisure and politics. A major part of this revolution is the expansion of the economy based on digital platforms that match demand and supply for labour without an intermediation of traditional corporations. Platforms also allow people to socialise regardless of geographic distance, find entertainment and travel opportunities easily, and do many other things. Some well-known platforms are Google, Twitter, Linkedin, Apple, Amazon, Uber and AirBnB.

While offering vast opportunities to the economy, platforms are also posing tough challenges, for example, in fostering often-precarious, project-based forms of employment at the expense of stable contracts with social security protection, or putting pressure on traditional news media.

This note brings together commentaries and studies by international think tanks and research institutes on the role of digital platforms, notably in labour markets, and related issues.

International development and the digital age
Friends of Europe, January 2018

Supporting press publishers in a digital era
European Policy Centre, January 2018

Digital transformation, responsive collaborations, democratic responsibility: Three challenges faced by public media platforms
Terra Nova, December 2017

Taxi and private hire vehicle regulation: A briefing
Institute of Economic Affairs, December 2017

The Internet and jobs: A giant opportunity for Europe
Centre for European Policy Studies, November 2017

Work in the European gig economy
Foundation for European Progressive Studies, November 2017

What is happening with platform workers’ rights? Lessons from Belgium
Centre for European Policy Studies, October 2017

New coalitions for Europe’s digital future: Building capacity, improving performance
European Centre for International Political Economy, October 2017

The effect of geographical distance on online transactions
Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, October 2017

How ecommerce creates jobs and reduces income inequality
Progressive Policy Institute, September 2017

Back in the game: Reclaiming Europe’s digital leadership
European Political Strategy Centre, September 2017

A law on robotics and artificial intelligence in the EU?
European Trade Union Institute, September 2017

The Platform Economy and industrial relations: Applying the old framework to the new reality
Centre for European Policy Studies, August 2017

Digitalisierung im deutschen Arbeitsmarkt: Eine Debattenübersicht
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, August 2017

Impact of digitalisation and the on-demand economy on labour markets and the consequences for employment and industrial relations
Centre for European Policy Studies, July 2017

Government responses to the Platform Economy: Where do we stand?
Centre for European Policy Studies, July 2017

Policy choices for the digital age: Taking a whole economy, whole society approach
Friends of Europe, June 2017

The impact of the collaborative economy on the labour market
Centre for European Policy Studies, June 2017

Stepping up the game: The role of innovation in the sharing economy
Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln, May 2017

Economie collaborative: Comment l’Europe aborde le sujet?
Confrontations Europe, May 2017

The digital market for local services: A one-night stand for workers? An example from the on-demand economy
Centre for European Policy Studies, April 2017

Do we understand the impact of artificial intelligence on employment?
Bruegel, April 2017

The creative economy in Europe: Why Human beings remain the economy’s key asset
Lisbon Council, March 2017

Vers la providence 4.0? L’entrée dans le numérique de l’Etat-providence, dans les domaines du travail, de la santé et de l’innovation comparatif européen
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, March 2017

We must tackle long-term job insecurity, not just the excesses of the ‘gig economy’
Friends of Europe, March 2017

Tourisme en France: Cliquez ici pour rafraîchir
Institut Montaigne, March 2017

EU strategy: Reskilling for the fourth industrial revolution
Notre Europe, March 2017

An economic review of the collaborative economy
Bruegel, February 2017

Digital labour markets in the Platform Economy: Mapping the political challenges of crowd work and gig work
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, January 2017

Policy and politics in the era of the industrial Internet: How the digital transformation will change the political arena
Bruegel, December 2016

Technology disruptions as enablers of organizational and social innovation in digitalized environment
Research Institute of the Finnish Economy, December 2016

The online platform economy: Has growth peaked?
JPMorgan Chase & Co Institute, November 2016

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What is the European Youth Event?

Citizens write to the European Parliament to discover more about the European Youth Event (EYE) and to find out the practical details.

Large group of diverse people / Fotolia

The EYE is a two-day event organised by the European Parliament on its premises in cooperation with the European Youth Forum and other organisations. It gives young people the opportunity to take part in political debates, workshops and other activities and interact with leading EU figures, with a view to coming up with innovative solutions to major future issues.

Participants in this year’s event, EYE2018, the motto for which is ‘The plan is to fan this spark into a flame’, will go to Strasbourg on 1 and 2 June 2018 to meet and talk with European decision-makers and inspiring personalities. Some 8 000 participants aged 16-30 years old from all over Europe are estimated to be taking part in EYE2018.

The five themes of this year’s event will be:

  • Young and old: Keeping up with the digital revolution
  • Rich and poor: A fair share for everyone?
  • Apart and together: Fighting for a stronger Europe
  • In safety and in danger: Surviving turbulent times
  • Local and global: Protecting our planet.

EYE2018 will invite mostly young, inspiring thinkers, political decision-makers and key figures from the fields of business, research, culture and civil society as speakers at the various events. Additionally, EYE2018 will include concerts and artistic performances. YO!Fest, organised by the European Youth Forum, will take place outside the Parliament’s buildings.

EYE report

The most developed and popular ideas will be selected to kick-off the discussion in a number of activities at EYE2018, or will be included in the EYE report. This report, which will be published in July 2018, will collect the best ideas coming from the event. Following publication, it will be distributed to all Members of the European Parliament in autumn 2018. The European Parliament is looking for a team of young reporters to cover the EYE2018 and highlight the most relevant and hotly debated ideas.

Practical arrangements

The languages used at the event will be English, French and German. The EYE2018 is free, but participants will have to cover their own transport and accommodation costs and pay for their own meals.

The closing date has passed for group registrations (15 January 2018), however, anyone who cannot attend the event in person will be able to follow some of the activities via webstreaming and participate directly by asking questions and putting forward ideas on social networks. The EYE aims to involve young people from a variety of backgrounds.

During both days, participants will be able to attend three to four activities, booked in advance, and attend more activities (without reservation) at the Yo!Fest.

Further details about the programme and the event in general are available on the European Youth Event website, the EYE2018 FAQs and on the EYE Facebook page.

Two previous editions

The first edition of the EYE took place on 9-11 May 2014 and attracted more than 5 500 young people. The EYE2014 report was made available to MEPs (after the European elections) and served as a source of inspiration, as well as a guide to the hopes and concerns of Europe’s youth. Additionally, participants had the chance to present the most tangible ideas suggested by young people during the EYE to seven parliamentary committees and receive feedback in person from Members of the European Parliament.

The EYE2016 event took place on 20 and 21 May 2016. More than 7 500 young people aged between 16 and 30 from all over Europe took part. More information is available in the EYE2016 final report drawn up by the European Youth Press, which includes comments by the European Youth Forum. Additionally, participants presented and debated their ideas within ten parliamentary committees in the months after the event.

Do you have any questions on this issue or another EP-related concern? Please use our web form. You write, we answer.

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Kremlin trolls in the US presidential election

Written by Martin Russell,

Discussions about Kremlin interference in the 2016 US presidential election initially focused on Russian hackers and leaked e-mails. However, US Congress enquiries have highlighted the important role played by Russian social media activity in influencing public opinion.

The Kremlin’s troll factory

a troll typing on the keyboard of a laptop computer

© Victor Moussa / Fotolia

Kremlin media, such as Sputnik and RT, weighed in on the election debate, showing a clear pro-Trump/anti-Clinton bias. However, most Russian activity was covert, through social media accounts purporting to come from US citizens, news portals and organisations, but in fact operated by Russian trolls. According to statements by social media companies to US Congress inquiries into the subject, there were 50 258 Russian-linked, automated Twitter accounts, which had generated 2.1 million tweets; Facebook found 470 accounts (22 of these matched directly with Twitter accounts), which produced a total of 80 000 posts. On YouTube, Google suspects 18 channels, which between them uploaded 43 hours of political videos.

Social media companies have traced many of these accounts to a shadowy organisation from St Petersburg, set up in 2013 as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), dubbed by the press as the Kremlin’s ‘Troll Factory’. Officially closed in 2016, it remains active and in late 2017 moved to bigger offices. In 2015, the agency was reported to have a staff of 800-900. Of these, as many as 90 were assigned to cover the US presidential election. Although agency head and Kremlin caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin is known as Putin’s ‘personal chef‘, the organisation has no official links to the Kremlin, which continues to deny any electoral meddling.

Stirring up controversy through provocative posts and street protests

Tweets from Russia-linked Twitter accounts included re-tweets of posts by Donald Trump (470 000 times), as well as re-tweets of posts from Wikileaks and related accounts about leaked e-mails from the Clinton campaign (197 000). Nevertheless, most tweets were not directly linked to the election campaign, but promoted right-wing views on race relations, Muslim extremism, migration and gun control likely to appeal to Trump supporters. Among the most successful troll accounts on Twitter were those of Trump supporter Jenna Abrams (over 70 000 followers) and of Islamophobe SouthLone Star (17 000 followers), self-described as a ‘proud Texan and American patriot’. Kremlin trolls also set up numerous discussion groups on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, such as Heart of Texas, Being Patriotic and Army of Jesus.

However, some trolls also took the opposite side of the debate, in groups such as Blacktivist and BlackMattersUS, LGBT United, and United Muslims of America. The aim, in the words of US Senator Richard Burr, appears to have been ‘to foment conflict… and tear apart our society’. Presumably, in doing so they calculated that a more heated debate would favour Donald Trump as the more outspoken candidate.

Kremlin trolls brought conflict not only to social media but also to the streets, by orchestrating various protests. In May 2016, an anti-Muslim rally in Houston organised by Heart of Texas clashed with a counter-protest led by United Muslims of America. Two months later, a Blue Lives Matter rally honoured officers killed by a black protestor, on the same day as a gathering commemorated a black man shot dead by police. Being Patriotic attempted to organise pro-Trump rallies in 17 cities on 20 August 2017; how many of these actually went ahead is not clear. More successful was a November 2016 BlackMattersUS anti-Trump rally, staged a few days after Donald Trump’s election victory in New York and attended by thousands. These events were mostly organised from Russia without any local presence; for some of its rallies, BlackMattersUS posed as a black rights movement in order to enlist the support of American activists.

Amplifying the message

On Twitter, internet analysts have described a three-step propagation technique in which messages are launched by fake ‘shepherd’ accounts purporting to come from influential organisations and individuals. One example was @TEN_GOP, claiming to represent the Republican Party in Tennessee. In the second step of the process, ‘sheepdog’ troll accounts re-tweet messages, adding content of their own; finally, these in turn are disseminated by thousands of automated ‘bot’ accounts. As tweets spread across the internet, they attract interest from genuine users, acquiring a momentum of their own and eventually going viral.

The use of social media advertising

On Facebook, Kremlin trolls paid a total US$100 000 for 3 000 of their posts to appear in users’ news feeds as ‘sponsored content’. One advertisement featured a picture which users were invited to like in order to help Jesus defeat Satan (and with him, Hillary Clinton) in an arm-wrestling match. Other examples include advertising memes (one showing Texas rangers waiting to intercept illegal immigrants, captioned ‘Always guided by God’) and over 1 000 YouTube videos. Facebook advertising of this kind is highly effective, as it can be targeted at a particular audience based on user data. Facebook admits that one quarter of Russian ads were geographically tailored. Corporate insiders claim that swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, both won by Donald Trump by just a few thousand votes, were among the targeted locations.

What is the impact of Russian social media activity?

After initial scepticism, social media companies have woken up to the scale of the problem. Data released by them show that the most successful troll groups, such as Blacktivist (388 000 followers) on Facebook and Heart of Texas (254 000) on Twitter, reached substantial audiences. @TEN_GOP had 115 000 followers and attracted comments from such high-profile individuals as former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.

On Facebook, trolls reached 126 million users between January 2015 and August 2017: 11.4 million people as a result of seeing advertisements, 29 million people from their news feeds, and the remaining 88 million from shared posts. On Twitter, election-related tweets from Russia reached users’ newsfeeds 455 million times. 1.4 million Twitter users interacted with such tweets, for example by re-tweeting, quoting or liking them.

Although these are very large numbers, their implications should not be exaggerated. On Facebook, Russia-produced messages represented only 0.004 % of users’ news feeds; most users are likely to have simply overlooked them. On Twitter, Russian accounts only represented 1 % of election-related tweets.

Countering troll activity

Social media companies’ response

US senators have criticised social media companies for not taking the problem seriously enough. For example, Facebook accepted payments in roubles from purportedly American groups registered at Russian addresses or with Russian phone numbers, even though the company’s own rules require advertisers to be authentic. Twitter only closed down the popular @TEN_GOP account 11 months after it was exposed as fake.

However, social media companies are finally acting, in cooperation with the FBI’s Foreign Influence task force set up in 2017. As well as closing down suspect accounts, Facebook has committed to recruiting 1 000 extra staff for its advertising review department, and it has changed the ‘trending topics’ algorithm, making it harder for fake news to find its way into news feeds. The company does not block disputed content, as it is unwilling to act as an ‘arbiter of the truth’; however, since December 2017 stories which have been challenged as fakes are displayed next to alternative versions of the facts in the ‘Related Articles’ section. Facebook has also cut the amount of news stories that users see in their feeds. For its part, Twitter has promised to make election-related advertising recognisable to users, and to publish data on advertisers and targeted groups.

US administration/Congress response

President Donald Trump remains defiantly dismissive of the role played by Kremlin trolls. However, the US Congress is taking the problem more seriously; there are no fewer than three separate ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the US 2016 presidential election, by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. In late 2017, each of the three enquiries held hearings focusing on social media aspects, at which Google, Facebook and Twitter representatives were questioned.

The US Congress is debating a bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which would apply the same transparency standards to political advertising on social media advertising as already exist on broadcast and print media. However, its success is not guaranteed, not least due to possible resistance to restrictions on electoral campaigns.

Even if social media companies found no evidence of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 US elections, there is no reason for complacency; Russian trolls are accused of being behind a successful January 2018 Twitter drive for the release of a memo that sets out to discredit the ongoing investigation into collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, while CIA Director Mike Pompeo is warning of Russian interference in the 2018 elections.

Download this At a glance note on ‘Kremlin trolls in the US presidential election’ in PDF.

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Plenary round-up – Strasbourg, February I 2018

Written by Katarzyna Sochacka and Clare Ferguson,

Plenary session - Week 06 2018 in Strasbourg - Debate with the Prime Minister of Croatia on the Future of Europe

Debate on the future of Europe with the Croatian Prime Minister. © European Union 2017 – Source : EP

Highlights of the session included the second in a series of debates with EU leaders on the future of Europe, with Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković; and the debate and vote on the composition of the European Parliament after Brexit. The European Commission also made statements on fair taxation packages and the manipulation of scientific research by multinationals in the wake of revelations on emission tests on monkeys and humans by the German car industry. Parliament decided to set up a special committee on the Union’s authorisation procedure for pesticides (PEST). Parliament adopted agreed first-reading positions on, inter alia, a regulation on ending unjustified geo-blocking and two regulations on EU external action funds – among the priorities for 2018 in the Joint Declaration agreed by the Council, Commission and Parliament.

Statements on the Western Balkans, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and UNWRA

Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, made statements on a number of issues. The first of these, and a high priority on the current Bulgarian Council Presidency’s agenda, concerned possible EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. A statement on the situation in Zimbabwe followed, where the forced resignation of Robert Mugabe has yet to lead to a new era of fair and free elections. Mogherini also made statements on the situation in Venezuela, and on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Joint debate on Turkey

VP/HR Mogherini also took part in a joint debate on Turkey, which followed her statements on the current human rights situation, and on the latest developments in Afrin in Syria, where the Turkish military operation has led to many casualties, including civilians.

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

The Executive Director of the 2017 Nobel Prize winner, the International Campaign against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Beatrice Fihn, addressed the plenary, and urged the European Union to spearhead the abolition of these weapons throughout the world. Fihn encouraged all Member States to sign up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as it represents a political means for ensuring a world free from nuclear weapons. Fihn also called for Members to exert pressure in their respective countries to gain support for the treaty. The treaty was adopted on 7 July 2017 by 122 out of 192 countries, but no nuclear power has signed. It will enter into force 90 days after ratification by 50 countries.

Summertime arrangement

A debate followed a Commission statement on current summertime arrangements, with Members regularly hearing of citizens’ concerns over the time change and research finding a lack of benefits and some negative effects from changing the clocks twice a year. Members voted in a resolution to call on the Commission to propose an amendment to Directive 2000/84/EC to change the current arrangements.

End of unjustified geo-blocking

Purchasing items online is sometimes complicated by a technique known as geo-blocking, as well as other forms of discrimination based on customers’ nationality or residence. These practices, where some online outlets refuse to supply products or services, or charge higher prices, because the client lives in or is from another country, threaten EU e-commerce and cross-border goods and services markets. Parliament approved a compromise negotiated with the Council to end this unjustified discrimination. As some services are excluded from the legislation, the new law will be reviewed after two years, at Parliament’s request, providing an opportunity to extend it to cover digital copyrighted content and audiovisual services.

Cost-effective emissions reductions and low-carbon investments

A large majority of the European Parliament approved the interinstitutional agreement reached on reform aimed at strengthening the Emissions Trading System (ETS), while safeguarding EU industrial competitiveness. This brings the EU closer to formal adoption of a European directive that will reform the EU ETS for the period 2021-2030, making it more effective and allowing the EU to implement its commitments under the Paris climate agreement. The EU hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 % from 1990 levels by 2030. A reformed ETS is key to achieving this ambition, and the proposals on the table would reduce greenhouse gas emission allowances by 2.2 % per year from 2021. Support for modernisation and innovation, essential to accelerating the transition towards clean energy in the EU, is also included in the plans for reform.

EU external funds – joint debate

The President of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Werner Hoyer, took part in a joint debate on EU external action funds and the EU guarantee to the EIB to cover the risks of funding projects in countries outside the EU, concerning a reform aimed at combatting the root causes of illegal migration to Europe. Parliament’s Committee on Budgets is keen to promote good financial management of the Guarantee Fund for external actions, and has highlighted the need for transparency, and a strong focus on development and the consequences of climate change. Members approved the first-reading agreements reached with the Council.

Composition of the European Parliament

Parliament voted on the Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) Committee proposal on the composition of the European Parliament to adjust the current distribution of seats after Brexit. Members adopted amendments rejecting all reference to transnational lists, which could have opened the possibility of creating a European constituency with Members elected from transnational lists. A large majority supported the AFCO proposal for the 2019-2024 legislature which would see a reduction in the size of the Parliament with no loss of seats for any country, and supporting the reallocation of 27 seats – ensuring degressive proportionality is respected – of the 73 that will become vacant once the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU. The proposed distribution now has to be agreed by the European Council, and then Parliament must give its consent for its final adoption.

An oral question requested clarity on the timescale for Council’s adoption of Parliament’s long-proposed reforms that would strengthen the European dimension of the elections and bring greater electoral equality for the citizens of the Union. The President in Office of the Council stressed Member States’ agreement with the general aim of the proposal, but underlined their view that ‘harmonisation should only be pursued in case of strict necessity and after a rigorous examination of the added value it will bring’.

European Central Bank Annual Report for 2016

The Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee report on the ECB’s 2016 annual report notes that inflation in the euro area remains stubbornly below target, despite the ECB’s accommodative monetary policy, and that economic growth and unemployment rates are also uneven. Discussed in the presence of Mario Draghi, President of the Bank, the adopted report calls for action on the plans for the capital markets union and the banking union. However, the report also underlines the importance that the ECB’s next report take account of the risk of possible redistribution of assets to stronger economic actors, to the detriment of individuals and their personal savings, pensions and insurance.

Opening of trilogue negotiations

The decision of the Environment, Public Health & Food Safety (ENVI) committee to enter into trilogue negotiations on the monitoring and reporting of CO2 emissions from, and fuel consumption of, new heavy-duty vehicles, as well as the Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (LIBE) committee on a centralised system for the identification of Member States holding conviction information on third country nationals and stateless persons (TCN) to supplement and support the European criminal records information system (ECRIS-TCN) were approved, following a vote in plenary. Economic & Monetary Affairs (ECON) and ENVI committee announcements on negotiating mandates on four further proposals were confirmed unopposed.

This ‘at a glance’ note is intended to review some of the highlights of the plenary part-session, and notably to follow up on key dossiers identified by EPRS. It does not aim to be exhaustive. For more detailed information on specific files, please see other EPRS products, notably our ‘EU legislation in progress’ briefings, and the plenary minutes.

Read this at a glance note on ‘Plenary round-up – Strasbourg, February I 2018‘ in PDF on the Think tank pages of the European Parliament.

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Regulating imports of cultural goods [EU Legislation in Progress]

Written by Krisztina Binder (1st edition),

Römische Münzen

© Manuel Gross / Fotolia

Antiquities and valuable works of art from impoverished or war-torn countries and regions are often illegally acquired, sold and imported into the European Union (EU). In addition to damaging or destroying the archaeological sites and the artefacts themselves, illicit trade in looted cultural goods has also been identified as a source of income for terrorists and organised crime groups.

Currently, with the exception of two specific measures for Iraq and Syria, there is no EU legislation covering the import of cultural goods from third countries entering the EU. The national legislation in this area introduced by some Member States are divergent. Therefore, an EU-level approach would ensure that imports of cultural goods are subject to uniform controls along all the EU external borders.

The legislative proposal, as a follow-up to other EU initiatives aimed at strengthening the fight against terrorism financing, intends to prevent the import and storage in the EU of cultural goods that have been removed from a third country illegally, and thereby to combat trafficking in cultural goods, deprive terrorists of a source of income, and protect cultural heritage.


Stage: EESC

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Strengthening market surveillance of harmonised industrial products [EU Legislation in Progress]

Written by Nikolina Šajn (1st edition),


© vege / Fotolia

Harmonised products represent 69 % of the overall value of industrial products in the internal market. However, a significant part of these products does not comply with harmonised EU rules. This has negative effects on the health and safety of consumers and on fair competition between businesses.

To remedy the situation, the Commission proposed, on 19 December 2017, strengthening market surveillance rules for non-food products harmonised by EU legislation. The proposal for a compliance and enforcement regulation would increase EU-level coordination of market surveillance, clarify the procedures for the mutual assistance mechanism, and require non-EU manufacturers to designate a natural or legal person responsible for compliance information in charge of cooperating with the EU market surveillance authorities. In the European Parliament, a rapporteur has been appointed, and the proposal will be discussed in committee.


Stage: Commission proposal

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