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Tiina Ferm: Hybrid threats – a challenge to Europe

Ministry of the Interior
Publication date 22.10.2019 9.50

The purpose of hybrid influencing activities is to erode citizens’ trust in democracy and European values and to undermine the unity of the EU. Such activities may take the form of attempts to interfere in elections, manipulation of social media and cyber attacks aimed at paralysing public services – without forgetting the Salisbury poisoning incident. These rapidly evolving hybrid threats pose a long-term challenge, and Finland’s Presidency has made considerable efforts to prepare for and combat them.

The Presidency has organised, at different levels, four policy debates based on fictitious situations (‘hybrid exercises’). It has also addressed hybrid threats at a large number of EU working party meetings. Finland’s Presidency is likely to be especially remembered for raising awareness of hybrid threats and promoting the EU’s crisis resilience to enable it to respond to hybrid threats.

Finnish ‘comprehensive security’ concept as a model

The comprehensive security concept developed in Finland has been recognised internationally as an exemplary model for anticipating hybrid threats. Hybrid threats essentially tend to disrupt the interfaces of public authority activities and operate in a grey zone. This means blurring the boundaries between war and peace. One example is a large-scale disruption challenging the public authorities’ capacity to withstand the strain of hybrid action and its consequences, but without going so far as to warrant an emergency declaration providing for emergency powers.

Finland has sought to attenuate the boundaries between internal and external security by promoting a comprehensive approach to countering hybrid threats through cross-sectoral coordination. At the start of Finland’s Presidency, the Council of the EU established the Horizontal Working Party on Enhancing Resilience and Countering Hybrid Threats. This permanent working group will serve to improve situational awareness, exchange of information and cooperation between different policy sectors and EU agencies in preparing for hybrid threats in line with a comprehensive security model.

Targeting public authorities and journalists gives cause for concern

Free and open public debate is an essential feature of democratic society. Freedom of expression can, however, be abused in various ways, including hate speech, disinformation and targeting of public officials and other actors in society, such as journalists.

Finland's Presidency has sought to find EU-level methods to combat disinformation and targeting. Studies indicate that the trust experienced by citizens in key institutions of society, such as public authority and the media, correlates with their capacity to receive and actively process information in crisis situations. Consequently, the actual extent of this trust will be tested in times of crisis, when the authorities and the media communicate instructions and situational information to citizens.

New technologies on agenda of conference on hybrid threats and hybrid response

During its relatively short existence, the Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) has already established its role as an important player by promoting cooperation on countering hybrid threats and strengthening the participating countries’ awareness of the vulnerabilities of our societies.

As part of its Presidency Programme, Finland will host, together with the Hybrid CoE, the conference ‘Hybrid Threats – Hybrid Response in Modern Security Environment’ in Helsinki on 23 October 2019. The conference will be opened by Finland’s Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo. It will feature panel discussions on concepts related to hybrid threats, the future of democracy and hybrid scenarios involving critical infrastructure and new technologies.

Tiina Ferm, Head of Countering Hybrid Threats, Ministry of the Interior