Corruption in the EU – Is the EU Parliament for sale?

© Chappatte in Le Temps, Gen

By Paul Kirschner

First of all, why is corruption on the table?

Usually, the EU is a political rock that stands up to the current tensioned trend in many parts of the world with values of democracy, transparency, freedom, respect for human rights and so on. But no political system in the world is perfect. In March 2011, the Sunday Times published a report with evidence of the ease with which high-ranking MEPs can be persuaded to support amendments by means of secret payments in return. While this entails a long queue of legal persecution and consequences, the recent case of the so-called Qatar-Gate scandal illustrates the present nature of the problem and the need for political as well as systemic consequences. Especially during the upcoming European elections, which will set the course for the future of the European Union, the EU electorate should be aware of the relevance of their votes. The following aims to raise awareness of potential problem areas and sensitise people to possible improvements. Let’s find out whether the rock in the surf can also withstand the waves of corruption!

“Cash-for-Amendments” Scandal

First things first. What happened? And why is it so controversial? In the so-called “Cash for Amendments” or also “Cash for influence” scandal there have been claims that several MEPs would take payment to suggest changes to EU-laws. Undercover reporters from The Sunday Times in the UK revealed the scandal by assuming the identity of lobbyists trying to sway EU laws. This led to the following question as to whether there really is a corruption problem in the legislature. And if so, why there were no consequences followed by that issue. As a result of this and other public research, for example by NGOs such as Transparency International or the European research centre for anti-corruption and state-building other examples of MEPs, which misused their expenses and parliamentary allowances for their own benefit came up. Furthermore, there have been cases where MEPs have misrepresented their expenses or used public funds for their own benefit. To name and picture an example of these three parliamentarians, Ernst Strasser, a former MEP from Austria, was found guilty of bribery in 2011 after accepting 100,000€ in return for suggesting changes to EU law as POLITICO Magazines reports. The two other MEPs in question, Adrian Severin of Romania and Zoran Thaler of Slovenia, could not even be sanctioned by the rules in effect at the time, much less removed from Parliament. Only following the investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), national authorities took charge and found all three of them guilty. 

With corruption cannot and will not be tolerated in the European Parliament. If the facts reported are proven, this type of behavior is a serious breach of the citizens’ trust.” Jerzy Buzek, the President of the European Parliament at the time, expressed his disappointment and demanded a serious reaction as well as changes by the EP. 

It is very common or even part of the job that MEPs are much in contact with lobbyists. Also receiving gifts is a usual procedure, but because of the fact that MEPs were mostly not obliged to make every present or financial side hustle public back then. So obviously, part of the problem back in times was the European Union’s Rule of Law. In order to address this mostly semi-legal but also some legal changes were made. For Instance a new Code of Conduct for MEPs was introduced in the Parliament in 2012, mandating that they publish declarations of their financial interests and that they verify no conflicts of interest. For enforcing the Code of Conduct for MEPs further soft changes as the empowerment of the protection for whistleblowers and the European Parliament’s Committee on Standards of Conduct or often called Ethics Committee were implemented. Besides that, also legal changes with the reforms of lobbying rules and the establishment of a transparency register were made by the EU institutions. The register aims to increase transparency in lobbying activities and enhance public scrutiny of interactions between lobbyists and EU decision-makers. But it has to be emphasised that the transparency register for example is designed as a voluntary platform for lobbyists and other interest representatives. So, as these changes are mostly based on a volunteering will of collaboration it is questionable if these changes were really that helpful and effective on a supranational level to prevent corruption.

The “Qatargate” Scandal

The effectiveness of the consequences of the incident in 2011 unfortunately shows that this is not an isolated case. It recently came even worse. In December of 2022 one of the largest corruption investigations ever was conducted in an EU Institution. The police conducted several raids on homes and workplaces throughout Brussels, detained important suspects, and confiscated bags of cash in the middle of broad daylight. The serious allegations that the suspects had abused their role as MEPs in return for gifts or cash to carry out contracts from Qatar led to cinematic raids and arrests. Important evidence was found during the arrests of the main suspects, including former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and his aide Francesco Giorgi. The discovery of bags of money in offices leads to discussion and accusations of foreign interference in EU democracy. In subsequent raids, documents are also seized that show numerous meticulously recorded attempts at foreign interference, with their clients allegedly having spent around 4 million euros on these activities. A wide range of topics were covered by the actions attested in the documents, from major policy interventions like efforts to stifle resolutions criticising Qatar’s human rights record and to advance a visa-free travel agreement between Qatar and the EU to smaller measures like demolishing copies of critical books on Qatar in Parliament.

It also showed a vast network of purportedly influencing activities conducted between 2018  and 2022, with over 300 documented tasks for which the suspects were paid a substantial sum of money.According to reports, the suspects depended on a group of friends and allies in parliament that they called their soldiers“. During the investigation, four current and former Members of the European Parliament were arrested on charges including corruption, money laundering and membership of a criminal organization. Those arrested also include the now former European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili. In addition, police reports later revealed that other countries besides Qatar, such as Morocco and Mauritania, were also attempting to manipulate the European legislature. These revelations in the Qatargate files and the scandal by itself have reignited the debate on the appropriateness of Parliament’s response and ethical standards. This incident can almost be seen as clear evidence of the failure and absolute ineffectiveness of the response to the 2011 cash-for-amendments scandal. Perhaps even as useless.

So, as the leakage in the system is known, what could be done against?

As the Graph from the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index shows, how the probability of corruption within the EU ranges from very low to rather medium to even higher. For a political system to survive and stand up for its goals and values as a solid rock in turbulent waters, it requires constant development and improvement. The European Union is no exception to that. This means the corruption issues highlighted above underscore the need for comprehensive measures to address and prevent such misconduct within the EU-Parliament.  On the one hand, this can be achieved by improving transparency and accountability through the mandatory disclosure of MEPs’ financial interests, lobbying activities and meetings. In this way, conflicts of interest and unethical behaviour can be identified and addressed more quickly. This is exactly what was attempted after the “cash-for-amendments” scandal, but voluntary participation and its effectiveness is questionable. It also appears that establishing clearer rules and procedures for reporting and investigating allegations of corruption is essential for effective oversight and consequences.The introduction of codes of conduct and conflict of interest rules, as well as empowering independent oversight bodies to investigate and punish violations, can help maintain integrity and ethical behaviour in parliament. However, the scandals of 2011 and 2022 clearly show that normative narratives are not enough. The EU Parliament owes it to its citizens not only to strengthen its integrity, but above all to regain the public’s trust, eliminate weaknesses and thus prevent future corruption scandals. In this way, the entire EU can manage to resist new waves of challenges as a solid rock in the waters.

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