Belgium, Czech Republic seek sanctions for Russian interference in EU elections

By Julia Payne

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Belgium and the Czech Republic have called for new European Union sanctions to counter Russian influence in the upcoming European elections after several countries discovered early interference, an open letter to the EU leadership showed.

The letter, dated April 16 and signed by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo and Czech President Peter Fiala, was addressed to the heads of the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament.

The two leaders say instances of pro-Russian disinformation and interference had already been found in several member states. In particular, Belgian security services unearthed a network inside Belgium that involved cash transfers that took place in part in the Czech Republic.

The network aimed to forge cooperation between pro-Russian politicians at the European Parliament, help elect more pro-Russian candidates and appoint "people active within this network as employees (of newly elected) MEPs (members of parliament)."

De Croo said EU leaders had agreed at a summit to deploy for two months an emergency crisis mechanism, which was activated during the COVID-19 pandemic. A task force will then closely monitor disinformation.

"The plan is to produce a state of play of disinformation on a very regular basis. We will link this information together, share it with member states and work with national judicial authorities to take action," De Croo told a news conference.

Belgium pointed to the particular risk posed not only to EU institutions but also to NATO which is headquartered near its capital Brussels. European parliamentary elections will take place June 6-9.

Belgium, along with other EU countries, has opened a criminal investigation while the Czech Republic sanctioned several individuals and one entity under national sanctions for efforts to undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

"It is the right time to establish a new restrictive measure regime aimed to counter Russian malign activities," the leaders wrote.

(Reporting by Julia Payne, additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Stephen Coates)