How a leaked internal note from the European Commission (and the disinformation around it) made its way from Hungarian media to the rest of Europe, with a little extra help from Breitbart.
Internal notes from the European Commission rarely get a lot of attention. But a particular document, discussing the “legal effects” of the United Nations’ Global Compact for Migration, also called the “Marrakech pact” in some countries, has set off an outpouring of outrage and disinformation around Europe.
The note, which had no official value as it was internal, was written by Lucio Gussetti, “Responsible in the Legal Service of the European Commission for the Foreign and Security Policy, Development policy and Public International Law”. Basing his argument on European treaties, he stated that the Global Compact, which nine EU members have refused to adopt, would have “legal effects as it is able to decisively influence the content of the legislation adopted by the EU legislature”.
“This is the opinion of one person, not the official position of the Legal service”, said Natasha Bertaud, spokeswoman for the European Commission, to FactcheckEU partner Correctiv. However, many outlets and parties across Europe presented it over the past month as an underhanded plot to make the Global Compact mandatory for every member state. It started off in Hungary, made a detour by US media and spread across Europe in a couple of weeks. Here’s how an internal note became a “secret” plan.
An internal document, but no “secret”
The ten-page memo, which you can find here, was not intended to be public. A footnote on the first page explains why: “This document contains legal advice and is only for the use of the services to which it is addressed.” “It may be protected” by a regulation partially restricting access to internal documents related to a matter where a decision has not been taken yet. The footnote also states that disclosure of this document “may only be” done under Freedom of Information procedures regulated by this Commission Decision. However, the document is not classified or “secret”.
The document was sent on February 1st. The first mention of it, on March 9, could be fount on M1, the main state-owned television channel in Hungary. The full memo wasn’t published at the time, but a large part of it was shown in the TV report. Péter Szijjártó, Foreign Minister of Hungary, issued a press release on the 11th. “The greatest lie told by Brussels to date has been revealed”, said the minister. “The Hungarian Government is calling on the European Commission to stop the preparation of secret plans for making the UN Global Compact for Migration compulsory, and to make public all documents prepared within the framework of this plan."
The same day, a Hungarian journalist asked Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas a question about the memo (6 minutes in the video). He said he could not comment on that specific document, but that there were a lot of people working and writing internal documents in the Commission. He stated that the official position of the institution was that the Global Compact was “non-binding”.
Szijjártó was not satisfied with this answer and published a more explosive press release on March 18, which, this time, came with a lot of international attention. The Hungarian Foreign Minister, who falsely claimed that the memo “includes the word mandatory some eighty times” added that “Brussels want[ed] the contents of the document to be legally mandatory”, something that had already been denied by the Commission spokespeople.
The same day, foreign minister of Austria Karin Kneissl, protested to the EU about the opinion expressed in the legal note. (Kneissl was nominated by the nationalist party FPÖ but is not affiliated to any party herself. Austrian Foreign Ministers are sometimes independant politicians.)
On March 19, the full document was published by unzensuriert.at, an Austrian outlet close to the FPÖ, the nationalist party that formed a government coalition in 2017. In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party published a press release stating that “Brussels wants to impose the Marrakech pact to all EU member states.”
On the same day, the far-right Belgian party Vlaams Belang pushed the leaked note via its website and Twitter account. The party created an image highlighting part of the document with the following caption above it: "Marrakesh-pact: legally binding after all" and subtitled: "Leaked EU Commission Note Confirms The Binding Character of the Immigration Pact". It made its way from Vlaams Belang to Dutch media, including hyperpartisan websites like JDreport. On March 20, Geert Wilders, a Dutch MP and a leading figure of the country’s far-right, sent along with two other MPs from his party questions related to the leaked memo to the country’s Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Justice and Security. (“The European Commission, in response to reports on this document, stated that this is an unofficial document,” answered the Dutch government.)
From Breitbart to Italy
On March 21, the story was picked up in English by Breitbart, which helped it spread further. La Voce del Patriota, an Italian outlet close to nationalist party Fratelli d’Italia, basically adapted the Breitbart piece for an Italian audience, using the same headline and illustration.
The next day, Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia, posted the Voce del Patriota piece to her million followers. “The European Commission is trying to make the Global Compact for immigration legally binding for all state members, even those who said they were opposed to it,” she wrote. “Pro-invasion bureaucrats have sneakily prepared a document making the UN pact, that aims to declare immigration a fundamental human right, legally binding.” (The UN pact actually does not declare immigration a human right.)
The rumor about Brussels wanting to make the UN pact binding is not likely to die off. The leaked document is real, and distorting its context and purpose is easy to do. This is a good example of how facts can move from a European country to another (sometimes with some American help), and how disinformation can be amplified by a mix of political and media actors.
Jules Darmanin with the contribution of Tania Roettger, Silvia Cavasola, Tommaso Canetta, Maarten Schenk, and J.P. Burger.