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US Religious Rights Groups Spend Millions on European Elections

Billy Graham, son Franklin Graham and grandson Will Graham. (Photo: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Facebook)
Billy Graham, son Franklin Graham and grandson Will Graham. (Photo: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Facebook)

The largest donor in the openDemocracy investigation on dark money groups is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

A recent report from openDemocracy shows U.S.-based religious rights groups have spent at least $50 million on ‘dark money’ campaigns in Europe over the last decade. With the E.U.’s parliamentary elections in May, there is growing concern that external campaign financing could influence the contest.

The European Parliament is the union’s only publicly elected authority, responsible for passing laws and overseeing the union’s 140 billion-euro annual budget ($158 billion). It also appoints the President of the E.U.’s executive branch, the European Commission and the heads of the European Central Bank.

Anti-E.U., populist right or “Euroskeptic” parties are projected to win a third of parliamentary seats in the upcoming election. Foreign actors from Russia to Steve Bannon are providing funding and campaign support to Euroskeptic parties, who could use their parliamentary seats to undermine the union.

What is dark money?

“Dark money” refers to donations from organizations that don’t require the sources of their funding to be revealed. Some of the groups revealed in openDemocracy’s investigation have ties to the Koch Brothers and the family of U.S. education secretary Betsy Devos. One of the biggest spending groups, the American Center for Law and Justice, has President Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, as its chief counsel.

Steve Bannon, former chief political strategist for President Trump, is also linked to groups involved in the openDemocracy investigation. After being fired by President Trump, Bannon set up a Brussels-based organization called “The Movement” to bolster right-wing parties in Europe that support national sovereignty and immigration restraints.

“The beating heart of the globalist project is in Brussels. If I drive the stake through the vampire, the whole thing will start to dissipate,” Bannon told the Guardian.

Upcoming Election is a Choice ‘For or Against Europe’

Emmanuel Macron, who defeated Marine Le Pen’s anti-E.U. National Front in the 2017 French presidential election, says the upcoming contest is a choice “for or against Europe.” Le Pen, who has received financial support from Russia, is competing in the upcoming parliamentary elections on a platform of dismantling the European Commission and weakening the European Parliament.

In the words of Le Pen, “We are committing ourselves to freeing the Nations from a Union that suffocates them, that deprives them of their sovereignty and that seriously undermines democracy.”

Le Pen, who supports ending E.U. sanctions on Russia, isn’t the only Euroskeptic politician with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s populist-right Lega party also holds Kremlin backing, as well as membership in Bannon’s “Movement.” According to Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia and Eurasia studies at the Henry Jackson Society, “Almost all European populist parties have direct ties to Russia, although this is most often through individual connections rather than institutional ones.”

“Russia will attempt to influence the parliamentary elections using its usual tool kit, including targeted propaganda, and the stealing and leaking of information,” Foxall told CNBC.

Largest Donor Has Ties to Russia

The largest donor in the openDemocracy investigation on dark money groups is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which also has ties to Russia. The group is run by Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, who has said Islam is a “wicked and very evil religion” and that Satan is the architect of same-sex marriages. Franklin Graham recently traveled to Russia to discuss U.S. sanctions, claiming his trip was personally approved by Vice President Mike Pence.

Russia and Bannon were similarly involved in the Brexit Leave campaign. English businessman Arron Banks, who spent $13 million campaigning for the U.K. to leave the E.U., reached out to Bannon and Cambridge Analytica in 2015 in hopes of raising money for the Leave campaign from sympathetic U.S. nationals. Financial journalists are skeptical Banks used his own funds for his Leave E.U. campaign, and the “Bad Boy of Brexit” has numerous suspicious ties to Russia.

It is difficult to determine how coordinated anti-E.U. donors are with one another, but supporters of the union can find some relief in the disunity of the European populist right. Most Euroskeptic parties have so far rejected or shown ambivalence towards Bannon’s “Movement,” and personal differences between populist leaders like France’s Le Pen, Italy’s Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have inhibited them from forging a strong alliance despite their ideological similarities.

EU Attempts to Block Foreign Interference in Election

The E.U. Parliament launched an initiative to tackle social media disinformation ahead of the election, but experts say loopholes will prevent the union from successfully blocking foreign interference. There is no universal rule preventing foreign financing in E.U. countries, with only 13 countries having full bans. Italy, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands each allow foreign campaign donors.

“European leaders have thus far failed to address a major vulnerability, namely that foreign money can flow unimpeded into campaigns in a number of member states,” says Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

In a letter to the European Commission’s transparency tsar Frans Timmermans, MPs and leaders from six European countries said these openDemocracy’s findings “merit urgent and high level investigation by the European Commission and relevant national authorities.”

“We have all seen how democracy can easily be eroded if we remain complacent about the activities of anti-democratic actors… [who oppose] European fundamental rights, European values and liberal democracy,” they warned.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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