How Does Election Interference Affect Security and Stability in Europe and the Transatlantic Community in General?

Benedetta Berti, Head of the Policy Planning Unit, Office of the Secretary-General, NATO

National elections are first and foremost a domestic matter. But the impact of external interventions and interferences in such local processes transcends the national dimension. Interference can a have a negative ripple effect, questioning the accuracy and validity of the electoral process far beyond the targeted nation. What is more, by targeting a core feature and symbol of the democratic system, these attacks attempt to discredit the value of democracy itself and, along with it, rule-based liberal order as a whole.

While both our countries and institutions, from the European Union to NATO, have proven able to withstand these challenges and are making significant strides in improving their resilience; we simply cannot be complacent to the risks these attacks may pose to our societies’ constitutive values and principles.

Indeed, the impact of electoral interference goes beyond the political realm. If successful, these operations can undermine the validity of the democratic process and, just as importantly, they can fuel a public sense of distrust and disillusionment. In turn, sowing doubt in the democratic process can have a serious impact far beyond the political arena: it can fuel polarisation and societal fragmentation, as well as undermine resilience and even stability. In extreme circumstances, severely undermining internal cohesion and stability in a Member State could negatively impact unity and cohesion at the European level, with potential impact on matters of foreign and security policy.

Understanding the complexity and multi-faceted dimension of this threat is hence key to better prevent and respond to future attempts by non-state armed groups or states alike to interfere with domestic election.

Countering these attacks — with their domestic and international impact — requires strengthened international cooperation: democratic countries, in Europe and beyond, have much to gain by sharing information and exchanging best practices on prevention and countering of electoral interference, both in the physical and digital realm. Increased cooperation between NATO and the European Union can positively contribute to tackling these type of threats, first of all by increasing situational and strategic awareness and understanding. What is more, there other concrete ways through which NATO-EU working together can make a difference, including by bolstering concrete cooperation, planning and information sharing on relevant related areas, from countering hybrid threat, to cyber security, to strategic communication.

In addition, at the domestic level, effectively tackling interference in elections requires investing in both a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society response. Much progress has occurred in recent years in this direction: for example, by working with journalists, teachers, civil society activists and social entrepreneurs, among others, to help identify, debunk and counter disinformation and to boost societal resilience. More in general, strong, free and independent media and civil society can play an essential role in countering disinformation; just as promoting transparency and accountability in the political institutions can serve to boost trust and counter attempts to discredit the democratic system. Again, multilateral institutions like the EU can support these efforts by promoting, facilitating and encouraging sharing of information and best practices among Member States.