#Snowman Series 6 – The Other Snowman
Marine Le Pen faces the final round of the French Elections this week, against centrist Emanuel Macron. Having just stepped down from her role as leader of the far-right Front National, she continues to be supported by Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin.
Aside from public registers, Le Pen is the weakest link in the clandestine operation’s chain – with open investigations and clear financial links to Russia hanging over her.
With an established, complex, international network of the far-right and Russia working together on the manipulation of electorates, through psychometrics and disinformation campaigns, France is the next domino which may further their control of geopolitics and the financial markets.
“Aside from public registers, Le Pen is the weakest link in the clandestine operation’s chain – with open investigations and clear financial links to Russia hanging over her.”
Sweden is not alone in its strong response to interference in the democratic process. Working with the EU, Facebook shut down 30,000 fake accounts spreading disinformation ahead of the French election campaigns and teamed up with Google on an initiative to counter disinformation and alternative media sites spreading fake news in favour of Le Pen.
Le Pen’s Front National is also historically linked to Sweden in a different way, via the far-right Sweden Democrats – Le Pen’ s party helped fund the SD’s 1998 election brochure.
The right across Europe has long established connections, and have also aligned themselves with Russia and the US white supremacy movement, but UKIP under Nigel Farage was a late-comer. In 2014 he ruled out an alliance with the Front National but has since changed tack, giving public backing to Le Pen.
UKIP, however, is aligned with the Sweden Democrats having formed an EU parliamentary coalition with them in 2014, along with other groups, including one former Front National MEP, Joëlle Bergeron – who resigned from the party after being asked to stand down, having called for voters rights for European immigrants. She had been a Front National member for 42 years.
This period was significant in terms of the shifts of the right-wing parties across Europe. After Russia’s Vladimir publicly declared vision of a functioning “Eurasian Union,” the Kremlin began systematically building bridges with them. At the same time, Marine Le Pen outlined her concept of Europe as independent nation states controlled by a tripartite axis made up of Paris and Berlin and Moscow.
Anton Shekhovtsov, of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, made a statement in 2014, saying “There is no doubt that the Kremlin uses the European far right. As things are, Russia cannot compete with the EU in terms of economy, human resources, capital and IT– it's only chance to dominate is if Europe is reduced to separate nation states. While direct financial backing is difficult to prove, there is little doubt that Moscow is holding the purse strings. Ideally, Moscow would like to be funding mainstream politicians, but this is expensive and difficult. It is much easier to focus on MEPs where restrictions are more nebulous. Though I believe Russia has been paying these extreme right parties handsomely for lobbying its interests in Brussels.”
Another expert, Prof Mitchell Orenstein of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University in Boston, made a prescient call for the EU to be alive to the risks back too. “I really do not believe Putin's challenge to Europe is being taken seriously enough. Brussels must begin looking at how these parties are being funded. Putin’s position regarding the Ukraine is one thing, but when it comes to the rest of Europe, he doesn’t need to resort to land-grab tactics. He can just sit patiently on the sidelines and watch as the far right tries to dismantle the EU once and for all,” he said.
“There is no doubt that the Kremlin uses the European far right. As things are, Russia cannot compete with the EU in terms of economy, human resources, capital and IT– it's only chance to dominate is if Europe is reduced to separate nation states. While direct financial backing is difficult to prove, there is little doubt that Moscow is holding the purse strings. Ideally, Moscow would like to be funding mainstream politicians, but this is expensive and difficult. It is much easier to focus on MEPs where restrictions are more nebulous. Though I believe Russia has been paying these extreme right parties handsomely for lobbying its interests in Brussels.”
Over time, the creeping Russian influence became increasingly overt.
In 2013, Le Pen was invited to Moscow by State Duma leader and Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin. She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. During the 2017 French election campaign, she visited Moscow again, meeting Putin himself, who is reported to have said: “we attach a lot of importance to our relations with France, trying to maintain smooth relations with both the acting power and the opposition representatives.”
2013 was the same year Nigel Farage met Russia’s London Ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko - who later met UKIP and Leave.EU donor Arron Banks after the UKIP conference in 2015. Banks described his contact as being with “the KGB’s man in London” and they held a lengthy discussion about Brexit.
After Farage’s first meeting, UKIP MEPs began to appear with increasing frequency on RT, a Russian state media channel, and Farage went on to be offered his own show after Brexit - He was ‘knighted’ on the channel in March 2017.
In March of 2014, Nigel Farage named Putin as the world leader he most admired, praising the way the Russian president handled “the whole Syria thing” as “brilliant”.
By January 2016, James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, had been instructed by Congress to conduct a major review into Russian clandestine funding of European parties over the previous ten years.
The review arose amidst Washington’s significant concerns over Moscow’s exploitation of European disunity which they believed was aimed at undermining Nato, blocking missile defence programmes, and reversing economic sanctions which came about after the annexation of Crimea.
A senior government official from the UK told the Telegraph “It really is a new Cold War out there. Right across the EU, we are seeing alarming evidence of Russian efforts to unpick the fabric of European unity on a whole range of vital strategic issues.”
Clapper resigned ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration in November 2016, by which time Brexit had caused a significant shock across the EU and troop movements had begun escalating on Europe’s Eastern borders.
“It really is a new Cold War out there. Right across the EU we are seeing alarming evidence of Russian efforts to unpick the fabric of European unity on a whole range of vital strategic issues.”
In 2014, the Front National under Le Pen confirmed taking Russian money.
The First Czech-Russian bank based in Moscow loaned the party 9.4m Euros (£7.4m) and a further 2m Euros (£1.6m) was borrowed from a company based in Cyprus. At the time, Le Pen responded to the media coverage saying “what is scandalous here is that the French banks are not lending.”
Russia correspondent Luke Harding, reporting for the Guardian, wrote “in Soviet times the KGB used “active measures” to sponsor front organisations in the west including pro-Moscow communist parties. The Kremlin didn’t invent Europe’s far-right parties. But in an analogous way Moscow is now lending them support, political and financial, thereby boosting European neo-fascism.”
Harding made similar conclusions to the academic experts, reporting “tactically, Russia is exploiting the popular dissent against the EU – fuelled by both immigration and austerity. But as rightwing movements grow in influence across the continent, Europe must wake up to their insidious means of funding, or risk seeing its own institutions subverted.”
Only days ago, in May 2017, a joint investigation by French journalists at Mediapart, in collaboration with Latvian colleagues at re:Baltica, revealed that Vilis Dambiņš, a director of an intermediary company managing assets related to the family of Vladimir Putin’s special representative for relations with Russian organisations abroad, Alexander Babakov, personally met with at least two high-ranking officials of Le Pen’s Front National to discuss options for the party to get a further Russian loan.
The second loan, reportedly an application for EUR 3 million, was made to an organisation called Strategy Bank which allegedly had its licence revoked and the loan was never completed.
The first loan provider, FCRB who issued the EUR 9.4 million, also had its licence to trade removed in 2016 due to “poor asset quality” and a failure to “normalise its work.” The bank was fully owned by billionaire Roman Popov, who had until then managed to maintain a low profile.
However, in July 2016, the Czech central bank filed a legal complaint against the financial management of ERB bank, also owned Popov. Corruption police launched an investigation into the suspicious syphoning of funds.
First known as the European-Russian Bank, it was set up to fund Czech-Russian trade but, according to insiders, “primarily served as the source of finances for Popov and his influential countrymen.” The inquiry was triggered when a portion of the bank’s finances disappeared. According to sources, “money was flowing from the ERB bank through bonds, mostly fictitious ones.”
ERB responded via its website saying it was in a "good condition" and in the Czech press were part of "the anti-Russian rhetoric that has long been used in the EU countries and partially also in the Czech Republic.”
“The Kremlin didn’t invent Europe’s far-right parties. But in an analogous way Moscow is now lending them support, political and financial, thereby boosting European neo-fascism.”
Le Pen has also been personally subject to a European Union investigation of her finances which resulted in an adverse finding.
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is the only EU body mandated to detect, investigate and stop fraud with EU funds.
In July 2016, OLAF concluded an investigation concerning the misuse of parliamentary assistance allowances by Marine Le Pen in her official capacity with the Front National. OLAF recommend to the European Parliament they recover the large sum of EUR 336,146.
The specific details of the allegation against Le Pen were that she used funds allotted for parliamentary assistants to pay the salaries of her personal assistant, Catherine Griset, and her bodyguard, Thierry Legier, for work unrelated to her EU role. As a result, and in an effort to recoup the funds, the parliament began withholding half of Le Pen's stipend effective from February 2017 and suspended her expense allowances and half of her housing allowance in March.
Le Pen denied any wrongdoing yet invoked her immunity as an MEP, refusing to attend questioning by the investigating magistrates. She also asked the EU's General Court to suspend the recovery action while awaiting a primary ruling on a legal request to have the investigation findings thrown out.
The General Court rejected Le Pen’s case in April 2017, having already rejected similar requests from three other Front National members. Numerous other party MEPs were targeted in the same inquiry and have also faced salary sanctions. The Parliament is seeking to recover a total of 1.1 million euros and French investigators, probing a ‘fake jobs scam’, raided the party's headquarters outside Paris in March 2017.
The French authorities carried out the warrants as they attempt to determine whether the Front National appropriated European Parliament funds to pay for twenty assistants who were presented as parliamentary aides while working for the party in other domestic capacities.
Exploring these broader allegations against the Front National, OLAF has provided a broad response, stating “OLAF is investigating suspicions of fraud and irregularities concerning the use of parliamentary assistance allowances by MEPs belonging to the Front National.”
“The OLAF investigation is examining possible breaches of the Statute of Members of the European Parliament and its implementing measures, potential conflicts of interest and possible misuse of EU finances. However, as the investigation is on-going, OLAF is not in a position to confirm or deny the alleged involvement of any specific persons in this case, nor make any other comments.”
“This is in order to protect the confidentiality of on-going and possible ensuing investigations, subsequent judicial proceedings, personal data and procedural rights,” they added.
“The OLAF investigation is examining possible breaches of the Statute of Members of the European Parliament and its implementing measures, potential conflicts of interest and possible misuse of EU finances.”
Having contacted the European Parliament directly, they have provided a comprehensive background to the framework and regulation of MEP expenses.
The parliament told me “members of the European Parliament are entitled to assistance from personal staff whom they may freely choose. The parliamentary assistance allowance may not be used to cover personal expenses or for grants or donations of a political nature. Members may not either directly or indirectly employ members of their immediate family (parents, children, brothers, sisters, spouses or stable non-marital partners). In general, contracts with assistants must not give rise to any conflicts of interest.”
They also set out the rules relating to the allocation of financial support and how it can be used. “The maximum monthly amount defrayable in respect of all such personal staff is EUR 24 164 (2017 rate). None of these funds are paid to the MEP themselves. A Member’s staff duties must specifically relate to the Member’s work as Member of the European Parliament.”
The specific rules under which the Front National are being investigated relate to the impermissibility of using EU funds to “finance contracts concluded with an organisation” and further prohibits funds from being used for “pursuing political objectives, such as a political party, foundation, movement or parliamentary political group.”
A list of admissible and non-admissible costs in relation to the assistants has been adopted by the Bureau of the Parliament and clearly mentions as inadmissible expenses “any expenses in relation to elections, referenda or any other campaign whether at national or EU-level.”
These rules also triggered a 2016 investigation into UKIP.
The Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe, a Ukip-controlled EU Parliamentary group, was asked to return EUR 172,655, after officials uncovered a breach of the rules arising from the alliance pouring money into the United Kingdom’s 2015 general election and the Brexit referendum.
UKIP spent the EU funds on polling and analysis in constituencies where they hoped to win a seat in the 2015 general election, including in South Thanet - a seat which Farage contested. The party also funded polls to gauge the public mood on Brexit, months before the official campaigning began.
The EU report on the misspending concluded that “these services were not in the interest of the European party, which could neither be involved in the national elections nor in the referendum on a national level. The constituencies selected for many of the polls underline that the polling was conducted in the interest of UKIP. Most of the constituencies can be identified as being essential for reaching a significant representation in the House of Commons from the 2015 general election or for a positive result for the leave campaign.”
It has previously been established that Russia interfered in the 2015 general election and foreign powers were involved in cyber-attacks during Brexit.
The report also concluded there were “a substantial number of activities for which financing ought to be considered as non-eligible expenditure,” in respect of spending on polls around the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2016.
The ADDE group as a whole was to be denied €248,345 in grants for failing to follow the rules.
Having already uncovered a substantial labyrinth of companies which utilise surveys and polling to harvest and trade in data, directly linked to UKIP, Donald Trump, and Arron Banks, the conclusions reached by the EU are now set in a much clearer context.
The potential data laundering activities and disinformation campaigns used to sway the electorate also tie in with a broader series of links between Farage, Trump, Wikileaks, and Russia, the ongoing Electoral Commission investigation into Leave.EU, and referrals now made to the ICO in respect of the data laundering.
Farage responded to the report, then as interim leader of UKIP, saying “we are in an environment where rules are wilfully interpreted as suits. I’ve understood absolutely the rules. This is pure victimisation.”
The EU state the ADDE declared itself bankrupt in the wake of the inquiry.
“Having already uncovered a substantial labyrinth of companies which utilise surveys and polling to harvest and trade in data, directly linked to UKIP, Donald Trump, and Arron Banks, the conclusions reached by the EU are now set in a much clearer context.”
UKIP have already faced an OLAF investigation which resulted in one of their MEPs being sent to prison for fraud offences - mirroring the ongoing Front National investigation.
In July 2015, former UKIP MEP Ashley Mote was sentenced to five years in prison having been found guilty of several fraud-related offences committed to the detriment of the European Parliament's budget.
The court case was triggered by an OLAF investigation carried out in 2010, which focused on the expenditure of a part of Mr Mote's allowances for hiring parliamentary assistants through a specific service provider. The evidence showed the MEP diverted EUR 355,000 into private accounts.
The EU parliament sanctioned the investigation and it was referred to police in the UK who discovered more payments arising from false and misleading documents. The court sentenced Mr Mote to five years in prison.
“UKIP have already faced an OLAF investigation, which resulted one of their MEPs being sent to prison for fraud offences - mirroring the ongoing Front National investigation.”
OLAF have kindly provided more information about their structure and powers.
OLAF fulfils its mission by carrying out independent investigations into fraud and corruption involving EU funds: so as to ensure that all EU taxpayers’ money reaches projects that can create jobs and growth in Europe; contributing to strengthening citizens’ trust in the EU Institutions by investigating serious misconduct by EU staff and members of the EU Institutions; and developing a sound EU anti-fraud policy.
OLAF can investigate matters relating to fraud, corruption and other offences affecting the EU financial interests concerning all EU expenditure, as well as some areas of EU revenue, mainly customs duties.
Based in Brussels, OLAF has roughly 400 staff members, more than 300 of whom are working as either investigators or selectors, or in investigation support (forensics, legal services, etc). The team have diverse backgrounds - some having worked for national police or customs authorities, or as lawyers or judges. The Director-General of OLAF is Mr Giovanni Kessler.
OLAF is fully independent in its investigative mandate from any other EU or national institution, body or authority. It neither seeks nor receives instructions from any party.
OLAF is not a prosecution body, it carries out administrative investigations. When relevant, OLAF sends the information gathered in its investigations (final case reports) to the competent national authorities for their consideration and possible follow-up.
OLAF may recommend financial, judicial, disciplinary and administrative action where it finds any of the following:
A misappropriation or wrongful retention of EU funds or an illegal diminution of the EU revenues: OLAF will recommend to the competent authority at EU and/or Member State level to recover the money or prevent the money from being unduly spent.
A possible criminal offence in a Member State: OLAF will recommend consideration of judicial follow-up by the judicial authorities in that Member State.
A possible disciplinary offence: OLAF will recommend consideration of disciplinary action by the EU Institution, body or agency concerned.
A weakness in the management or control systems or in the legal framework: OLAF will recommend that action should be taken by the competent EU Institution, body, office or agency, or authority of the Member State.
“OLAF is not a prosecution body, it carries out administrative investigations. When relevant, OLAF sends the information gathered in its investigations (final case reports) to the competent national authorities”
The Russian-sponsored far right is united in its focus on the destabilisation of the European Union and, in the face of limited capabilities and responses from the authorities, is capitalising on exploiting its advantage over the electorates through underhand financial and political means.
This week’s accusations of European interference in the coming general election, made by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, are alarming in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. It is indicative of either a wilful blindness, an abject failure by our domestic security services, or something more sinister.
Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, called for moderation by May, saying "The stakes are too high to let our emotions get out of hand because at stake are the daily lives and interests of millions of people on both sides of the Channel."
The final round of France’s election takes place on Sunday the 7th of May 2017 and the result may change the world forever.