BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union should agree a sanctions law to target computer hackers by early next year, the bloc’s leaders are set to say on Thursday and will also seek a pledge from Russia and China to help stop cyber attacks, internal EU documents show.
Despite some reluctance from Italy’s anti-establishment government, EU leaders will make the call for a new regime to impose economic sanctions more quickly on specific hackers anywhere in the world at their summit on Thursday.
“Work on the capacity to respond to and deter cyber attacks through EU restrictive measures should be taken forward,” EU leaders will say, according to a draft of their final summit statement, using EU parlance for economic sanctions.
“Negotiations on all cybersecurity proposals should be concluded before the end of the (EU) legislature,” the draft statement said, referring to the April 18, 2019, closure of the European Parliament’s term.
Addressing the German parliament on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of possible manipulation of next May’s European Parliament election, in the latest warning by an EU government that Russia may use cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns to undermine the vote.
Russia has made cyber and electronic warfare part of its military operations, Western officials say, and Britain, the Netherlands and the United States have accused Moscow of conducting a global campaign of computer hacks against the West.
Russia denies meddling in elections or hacking institutions. Russian officials portray such allegations as part of a campaign intended to entrench Moscow’s reputation as an enemy.
Diplomats at the Western military alliance NATO, which is set to have its own fully operational cyber command in 2023, say criminal groups in China and North Korea, as well as Islamist militants, are also behind attacks on Western computer networks.
The 28 EU leaders will meet Asian leaders and including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and China’s Premier Li Keqiang for a summit in Brussels from Thursday evening, where cyber security is expected to be discussed, with a focus on combating hackers in the final statement.
China also denies responsibility for cyber attacks.
ITALY’S PRO-RUSSIA STANCE
Britain is pushing for the special EU sanctions regime of travel bans and asset freezes before it leaves the bloc next year. That could allow London to align its sanctions policy with the bloc in the future.
But Italy’s anti-establishment government is resisting the measures as it seeks better ties with Russia, although Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte is not expected to challenge the wording of the final statement because it is still vague, three diplomats said.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sought to reassure his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi on Monday at a meeting of the EU’s foreign ministers in Luxembourg, the diplomats added.
Britain and the Netherlands also made a plea to their fellow ministers at the closed-door Luxembourg meeting after other countries joined them in making a formal request for economic sanctions on individual cyber attackers.
Most other EU countries now back the proposals, including France and Germany, diplomats said.
Sophisticated computer hacking weapons and cybersurveillance software allows hostile governments to spy on and undermine the West, often using criminal groups for cover, experts say.
At the special EU-Asia leaders summit on Thursday evening and Friday, the European Union will seek a political commitment from all 51 leaders gathered in Brussels to stop such criminals.
Leaders will stress “the importance of combating cyber security threats, preventing potential use of information and communication technologies for criminal or terrorist purposes and disinformation”, according to a draft statement.
Additiona reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Alison Williams