Russia-friendly MEPs in EU Parliament: Analysis

A European Parliament special committee recently described the Kremlin’s methods of interfering with democratic processes. One of the targets of the Kremlin’s efforts is the European Parliament. This is where MPs loyal to Moscow can both publicly adopt pro-Russian positions in official sessions and lobby the Kremlin’s interests on the sidelines. It is possible to track “Putinist politicians” in the European Parliament by using open data: it is enough to study how each MP votes when it comes to resolutions related to Russia and its allies. 

For example, in our previous article, you can examine at least one of them from The German club of “Putinunderstanders” in Germany.

Novaya-Europe has collected data based on voting results in the European Parliament over the past four years into who defends the interests of the Kremlin in Brussels, how, and why. (Infographic)

The European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding to recognise Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism by a majority vote in late November 2022. The decision was backed by 494 MEPs (members of the European Parliament) out of 705. The remaining MEPs, especially those who were present at the session and either voted against the resolution (58 votes) or abstained (44 votes), found themselves in the spotlight of media attention. Various media outlets tried to identify a group of MEPs loyal to the Kremlin, and some of those indeed turned out to be connected with Russia. 

From that time until January 2023, its members voted on a total of 22 resolutions directly connected with the Kremlin’s human rights violations, the Ukraine war, or anti-Russian sanctions. These data helped to distinguish several patterns of behavior of many MEPs.

The rift resolutions 

The current convocation of the European Parliament has been active since 2019. From that time until January 2023, its members voted on a total of 22 resolutions directly connected with the Kremlin’s human rights violations, the Ukraine war, or anti-Russian sanctions. One resolution was adopted both in 2019 and 2020, seven in 2021, 12 in 2022, and one was voted on in January 2023. One more resolution calling on Russia to set free political prisoners was adopted by the European Parliament on 16 February 2023, although its results were not included in this investigation.

After 24 February 2022, 10 out of the 12 adopted resolutions were on the Ukraine war and its aftermath. The EU condemned Russia’s aggression, endorsed the adoption of additional measures to ensure food security and protect families with children fleeing Ukraine, and also recognised Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, and the Holodomor as a genocide. The MEPs voted in favour of creating a tribunal to investigate the crimes of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in January 2023. 

Out of 705 members of the European Parliament, an average of 531 (75%) supported the anti-Russian resolutions we analysed. An average of a little over 40 (6%) voted against, and the same proportion (6%) opted to abstain.

Apart from choosing between these three options, an MEP may also simply not participate in voting by either not attending a sitting or not “pressing the button”, leaving their stance unrevealed. In the total package we obtained, only 4.3% of MEPs used these two methods between 2019-2022.

However, Novaya-Europe’s calculations show that the share of non-voters was three times larger when it came to anti-Russian resolutions. Such a deviation could hardly be an accident and means that some of the MEPs deliberately chose a strategy not to vote on documents related to Russia. 

Parties: populists or Putinists?

Novaya-Europe’s calculations indicate that parties with populist or radical policies vote against anti-Putin resolutions more often than others. Some of those parties include France’s National Rally, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Greece’s SYRIZA

However, the “output factor” of each of those parties is different. In the first place, it depends on how many seats those parties have in the European Parliament, and the second most important feature is how decisively the MEPs in question are willing to support Moscow’s interests. For instance, some openly vote against resolutions, while others use a more cautious approach and prefer to either abstain or not to vote at all.

From this perspective, the National Rally and Alternative for Germany parties remain the most useful for the Kremlin: they have 28 seats in the European Parliament together, and their MEPs often vote clearly “against” anti-Russian resolutions. 

MEPs from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party used to vote in solidarity with the Kremlin’s position even more often than their French counterparts before the war. Tino Chrupalla, the co-chair of AfD, visited Russia numerous times, meeting with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister. Chrupalla spoke against anti-Russian sanctions and military aid for Ukraine even after 24 February. The Russian invasion of Ukraine influenced the behaviour of AfD representatives at the national level as the number of “Putinverstehers”, at least rhetorical ones, decreased in the first months of the war. But at the European level, every AfD MEP did not support anti-Russian resolutions at least several times after 24 February 2022. 

MEPs from Greece’s far-left SYRIZA and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria act more cautiously, but also do the Kremlin’s bidding. Members of these parties rarely vote openly “against” anti-Russian resolutions, but often abstain from voting. 

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, MEPs from Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz and Italy’s biggest right-wing party Lega also preferred to abstain from voting on anti-Russian propositions. Founders of these two parties, Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini, are often accused of having informal ties with the Kremlin. 

MEPs who can be suspected of sympathising with the Kremlin often do not stick to one particular tactic when voting on anti-Russian resolutions but combine votes against, abstentions, and refusals to take part in ballots. They sometimes even support these documents. In order to avoid confusion, Novaya-Europe has created a ranking of MEPs whose votes were used to prop up Russia’s interests in one way or another.

Alternative for Germany’s Gunnar Beck, another public supporter of the Kremlin, rejected 18 out of 22 resolutions about Russia and the Ukraine war. Beck does not shy away from speaking out about his pro-Putin views

A new position or a change of tactics?

Several MEPs who backed Russia in their votes in 2019-2021 have reviewed their approach following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s not that they now support anti-war documents but opt to abstain or skip sessions altogether.

It is possible that a new group of MEPs who had second thoughts is forming in the parliament — as before the war they used to vote against anti-Russian resolutions but have backed most of them after 24 February. For instance, Helmut Scholz (The Left, Germany)  five French MEPs from the National Rally: Gilles Lebreton, Jean-François Jalkh, France Jamet, Catherine Griset, and Jean-Lin Lacapelle. In 2022, all of them supported most resolutions, very rarely opposing any Russia-related documents.

It is difficult now to understand how consistent this trend of declining MEP votes for the Kremlin will be. A change of tactics does not always mean a change of position. Moscow’s most ardent supporters in the European Parliament likely learnt in 2022 to act with more caution, not just openly opposing anti-Kremlin resolutions but resorting to other means. It is also possible that they have abandoned efforts to lobby for Russia’s interests in the EP halls, switching to other forums instead.

These MEPs have something to learn from Silvio Berlusconi, a good old friend of Putin’s. Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, now occupies a seat in the European Parliament along with his fellow Forza Italia members. Since the last European Parliament elections, the ex-Italian leader voted for anti-Russian resolutions only on two occasions. Nevertheless, he would have never made it to our list of “pro-Putin” MEPs.

The reason is that Berlusconi does not cast opposing votes, abstain, or refuse to vote when he gets a chance. In 15 out of 22 cases, Vladimir Putin’s pal did not show up at EP sessions focused on the “Russian question”. We could surmise that the former Italian PM is a “truant” and rarely attends EP meetings. But this is only partially true: in 2019-2022, Berlusconi missed about 30% of parliament sessions, while the share of Russia-related sessions that he missed exceeds two-thirds.

Infographics: Artyom Shchennikov

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