Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
As a recent report by openDemocracy has found that America’s religious right spent at least $50 million on “dark money” campaigns and advocacy in Europe over the past decade. And yet, despite obvious grounds for concern about the integrity of next month’s European Parliament elections, almost all the attention has been on the Kremlin.
The US religious right’s support for campaigns against legal abortion, LGBT rights, sex education and other causes in Africa and Latin America has been well documented over the years. But the scale of its engagement in Europe is new. In the first analysis of its kind, openDemocracy examined the financial records of leading US Christian organizations and found that several have been increasing their spending in Europe significantly.
Among the biggest spenders, the American Center for Law and Justice, which dished out $12.4 million from 2008 to 2017, lists as its chief counsel Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal attorneys. Likewise, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which spent $1.7 million in this period, has worked with the controversial Bannon-backed Dignitatis Humanae Institute outside Rome.
The largest spender of all appears to be the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which dispensed over $20 million from 2008 to 2014 (the last year for which data are available for this organization). The group’s leader, Franklin Graham, recently traveled to Russia to meet with Kremlin officials who are currently subject to US sanctions. According to Graham, his trip was fully endorsed by US Vice President Mike Pence.
None of these US-based groups discloses its donors. But at least two are known to have ties to famous conservative billionaires, including the Koch brothers and the family of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. And, like Bannon, all harbor varying degrees of suspicion, if not outright hostility, toward fundamental values of the European Union, including respect for universal human rights.
A few weeks ago, representatives and supporters of many of these groups met with European far-right politicians at the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy. This year’s lineup of speakers featured Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, who praised the WCF for showcasing “the Europe that we like.” Among the event’s “co-conveners” this year was an Italian anti-abortion group linked to the neo-fascist Forza Nuova (New Force) party.
Over the past decade, the WCF -- founded by the International Organization for the Family (formerly the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society), which is based in Rockford, Illinois -- has hosted at least seven major meetings in Europe. Its gatherings have been attended by hundreds of conservative religious activists and a growing list of far-right stars, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who opened the WCF’s 2017 meeting in Budapest.
The WCF’s push into Europe is no accident. According to the IOF’s latest tax filings, its directors include an ultraconservative Spanish activist with ties to the far-right Vox party, a close associate of a Russian oligarch who has sponsored other meetings of European far-right leaders, and an Italian politician facing corruption charges in his country.
Concerns about “outside interference” by hostile powers (namely, Russia) are of course nothing new in Europe (though they have grown more acute now that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has all but admitted that he cannot control how his platform is used). But now, Europeans also have to worry about US-based advocacy groups that conceal their funding sources.
Following the release of the openDemocracy report, a cross-party group of 40 members of European Parliament sent a letter to the European Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament demanding that further action be taken to protect the upcoming elections “against nefarious outside influences.” Of particular concern, they write, is “the specific matter of US Christian fundamentalists,” whose escalating involvement in Europe “must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
But this is a hard issue to tackle, because different EU member states have different rules for ensuring financial transparency in elections and by political campaigns and nongovernmental organizations. Still, requiring that all organizations lobbying in Brussels declare their funding sources on the EU transparency register would be a good start, provided that there are measures in place to prevent political organizations from hiding behind front groups. Europe also needs tougher EU-wide rules for social platforms, which should be held to the same standards of transparency as lobbying groups. Any political ad that runs online should come with a clear and accurate disclosure of its source and funding.
Reacting to openDemocracy’s findings, Neil Datta of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development points out that “It took (these fundamentalist groups) 30 years to get to where they are now in the White House.” Now, he worries that a similar campaign in Europe “is happening even faster and on a grander scale than many experts could have ever imagined.”
With the EU facing unprecedented internal and external challenges in the years ahead, the outcome of the upcoming European Parliament elections could well determine the bloc’s fate. That is why European leaders are focusing on preventing or neutralizing Russian machinations. Unfortunately, they are turning a blind eye to another outside player that doesn’t mean well for Europe’s future.
Mary Fitzgerald is editor-in-chief of openDemocracy. -- Ed.