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‘Home-grown’ European funding for religious extremism overshadows foreign cash

New research from the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights reveals $700m spent on ‘anti-gender’ activities since 2009

Claire Provost author pic Tatev.jpg
Claire Provost Tatev Hovhannisyan
15 June 2021, 12.02pm
Anti-abortion demonstrators on a March for Life protest in Rome, Italy, 2018
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Giuseppe Ciccia / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

It’s not Russian, or American. The biggest flows of cash for campaigns against the rights of women and LGBT people across Europe actually come from the continent itself, despite its reputation as the world’s ‘most progressive’ place to live.

This is the key finding of new research released today by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF), which brings together politicians across the continent and from a range of different parties.

Since 2009, more than $700m has been spent in Europe on ‘anti-gender’ activities, according to this research – with more than half (about $430m) coming from European sources, overshadowing $180m from Russia and $80m from the US.

“While the impact of US Christian Right and Russian oligarchs in Europe is significant, funding from European anti-gender organisations such as foundations and NGOs provides an even greater contribution,” says EPF’s report.

The amount of money that has been spent by “home-grown religious extremist funders” within the European Union has also “increased dramatically”, it says, from less than $18m a year in 2009 to more than $64m by 2018.

However, this home-grown funding is harder to track because of “an absence of financial transparency requirements, such as US or Russian equivalents, at Member State and EU level,” says the research, resulting in “significant data gaps”.

This means that the actual amount of money spent is likely to be higher than the figures in the report, entitled ‘Tip of the iceberg: Religious extremist funders against human rights for sexual and reproductive health in Europe 2009-2018’.

Austrian MP Petra Bayr, chair of the equality committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said this funding can have “disturbing” real-life repercussions: “Progressive politicians have to mobilise in order to not fall prey to these religious extremists’ legal and publicity stunts.”

In total, the report identified 54 organisations providing funding – along with “60 socio-economic elites from over 20 countries who contributed to anti-gender mobilisations in Europe,” including high net-worth business people and aristocrats.

These organisations include private foundations, religious groups, NGOs and political parties, with major Catholic foundations from France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain among the largest funders.

The report adds that “Religious extremists have tapped into public funding” too, obtaining money from governments including for projects to convince women to continue unwanted pregnancies and for conservative education targeting children.

It also notes the emergence over the last decade of new “transnational alliances” of conservative groups, including a pan-European anti-abortion federation.

Money spent by ‘home-grown religious extremist funders’ has tripled from less than $18m a year in 2009 to more than $64m by 2018

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld told openDemocracy that the amount of money documented in the report is “extremely shocking” and expressed hope that “these figures are going to serve as a wake-up call”.

“In Europe, we have been naive and blind to this problem for far too long, now we need to expose [these groups],” she added.

Danish MEP Karen Melchior said it is necessary “to organise a European alliance defending our fundamental rights in Europe”.

The EPF researchers had to pull together fragmented information from different countries and languages to build their database of funding flows. They examined more than 100 ‘anti-gender’ organisations active in Europe, of which 96 are from the EU, six from the Russian Federation and ten from the US.

US groups have become increasingly visible in Europe and “export the decades of experience of the US Christian Right on a range of issues such as fundraising and political mobilisation to grassroots organisations”, the report says.

The Russian funding comes from several organisations that are associated with two oligarchs, Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev. “At least four Russian government agencies operating internationally account for additional, yet unspecified, financial support,” the report adds.

This new research follows a flagship 2018 report from EPF, ‘Restoring the Natural Order’, which exposed the secretive workings of the Agenda Europe network coordinating conservative action against sexual and reproductive rights.

Last year, EPF released another report, ‘Modern Day Crusaders’, which looked specifically at Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), a transnational religious extremist network with roots in Catholic fascism.

EPF says TFP’s Polish members have been behind some of that country’s “most visible anti-gender initiatives”, including attempts to ban abortion, criminalise sexuality education and set up so-called “LGBT-Free Zones”.

At the end of this month, members of the European Parliament will be voting on its first report dedicated to the full range of sexual and reproductive health and rights in almost ten years.

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