The shocking corruption scandal in the European Parliament has turned the fears of many lobby watchers in Brussels into reality. A culture of impunity within the parliament has led to a blurring of norms, and terrible excesses. If the courts confirm what is now suspected, a few greedy people have been able to unabashedly accept the illegal advances of repressive regimes. Follow the Money attempts to find explanations: how could this have happened?
- It is the biggest EU scandal in years: Members of the European Parliament are suspected of having taken bribes from Qatar and Morocco, to represent the interest of these countries in Brussels. The question on everyone’s mind: how could this have happened?
- While the corruption case appears to be an excess, the scandal has sparked a debate about the integrity of MEPs, and the general integrity regulations.
- Corruption watchers are not surprised that it has come to this, and speak of a decades-long ‘culture of impunity’ within the European Parliament. Parliament's leadership has consistently watered down much-needed reforms to ethics regulations.
- Unlike companies or organisations that want to meet MEPs, diplomats are not required to register. Qatar and Morocco were able to freely approach, among others, Vice President Eva Kaili. One NGO that played an important role in the bribery was required to register, but failed to do so.
- A large number of MEPs stated afterwards that they found Kaili's behaviour suspicious. However, it seems unlikely that anything would have come to light without the intervention of the Belgian justice department. Currently, whistleblower protection within Parliament is extremely weak, which keeps staff from reporting suspicious behaviour.
The facts could have come straight from a Hollywood movie script. During dozens of house searches in Belgium and Italy, nearly 1.5 million euros in cash were seized. Computers and smartphones belonging to ten parliamentary assistants were frozen, and four suspects, including Eva Kaili, one of the fourteen Vice Presidents of the European Parliament, are in custody.
The scope of the scandal is as yet unclear. Media bring new revelations every day. It now appears that several MEPs received money from representatives of Qatar and Morocco to represent the interests of those countries regarding visa-free regimes, human rights, or fishing rights.
The pivotal figure is Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former MEP, and currently president of Fight Impunity, an association that claims to fight against impunity and for transitional justice. Panzeri would, among other things, have distributed the bribes among the MEPs and others involved.
Last week, investigators found suitcases and bags full of cash at various locations in Brussels: 600 thousand euros in Panzeri’s home, 150 thousand euros in Vice President Eva Kaili’s apartment, and several hundreds of thousands of euros in her father’s hotel room. Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, was also arrested. Giorgi works as an assistant to an Italian MEP, and is also involved with Fight Impunity.
The scandal means that all recent agreements with Qatar, including an important airline deal, must be re-examined
Since last week, the image of Eva Kaili, who called Qatar a ‘frontrunner in labour rights’, is suddenly seen in a completely different light. In Greek media, Kaili's lawyer nevertheless claimed his client is innocent and ‘is in no way involved with bribery by Qatar’.
Kaili's partner Giorgi has since admitted to being a member of an organisation that influenced European affairs for Morocco and Qatar, as Belgian newspaper Le Soir reported last Thursday. He is said to have managed the cash.
The scandal means that all recent agreements with Qatar, including an important airline deal, must be re-examined.
While the Belgian justice department is working on the case, many in Brussels and beyond wonder how on earth this could happen in 2022, in what should be the heart of European democracy.
Blurring of standards in practice
Brussels hosts the largest diplomatic community in the world: 120 international organisations and over 300 embassies and consulates. More than 37 thousand EU employees and over 25 thousand lobbyists are based there.
To gain insight into how foreign influence in Brussels works, Follow the Money spoke with an experienced lobbyist who works for non-EU countries. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
‘It is obvious that some members of the European Parliament are supportive of certain Gulf states or other countries,’ he says. ‘The question, then, is always: what’s the reason behind it?’
Such preferences, he said, could be rooted in political views, but also in one’s origin, or family ties – which he, incidentally, considers to be legitimate. ‘But often it cannot be directly traced back, and in those cases, something else seems to be going on. Not always outright bribery, but I do regularly see members of parliament being offered trips or advisory positions.’
The lobbyist says he’s also often seen members ‘of all political parties’ in Parliament actively angling for these kinds of benefits. ‘Restaurant reservations, or tickets for certain events, can then of course be easily arranged.’
He generally sees little harm in countries responding to such proposals. Of the Qatar bribery scandal, he says: ‘Here, things have truly gotten out of hand: more and more is being asked for, and more and more is clearly being given.’
Nicholas Aiossa works for the NGO Transparency International EU, which fights against corruption, and promotes integrity. He clearly distinguishes between lobbying and bribery: ‘This case is not about lobbying but about corruption. Lobbying doesn’t involve suitcases with 600 thousand euros in cash and criminal charges being brought by Belgian authorities.’
Aiossa sees a clear connection between this case and the lax culture within the European Parliament, where he himself worked from 2008 to 2014, in various political areas, from human rights to US/EU relations. ‘A lot of it has happened, in our opinion, within a general culture of impunity that has been left to fester in the European Parliament for decades,’ he says.
What needs to change
As with any form of crime, corruption cannot be completely eradicated. There is no single regulation that can prevent politicians from selling their influence. Nevertheless, the experts with whom Follow the Money spoke, agree on a number of reforms that could have reduced the chances of a scandal like this occurring.
1: A lobby register for countries
Companies or NGOs that lobby in Brussels must be included in a transparency register. This makes any contact between members of the European Parliament and these parties visible. But no such lobby register exists for diplomats and ambassadors of countries. This distinction has enabled the current scandal. Qatar was able to approach and influence MEPs with complete discretion.
‘There is no scrutiny of meetings with diplomats, because of their diplomatic status,’ says professor of European Law Alberto Alemanno. ‘And because we have done it like this in the past, this is how it still is. The nature and scale of this scandal and the methods used make it such an outlier that I expect this is going to change very soon.’
The lobbyist for non-EU countries is concerned that transparency may lead to European officials losing their willingness to speak to some countries, for fear of reputational damage, while these countries have ‘legitimate interests’ to defend.
Aiossa is less afraid that registering meetings with government officials means that ‘the art of diplomacy will be hurt’. Alemanno agrees: ‘MEPs claim the freedom of mandate. Of course, this is nonsense, because if I ask you to report a meeting, you still have the freedom to have this meeting.’
Yet a lobby register for countries won’t solve everything. Fight Impunity, the NGO of key figure Panzeri, played an important role in the Qatar bribery scandal. Although this NGO was not registered in the lobby register, employees still had unfettered access to the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights.
Olivier Hoedeman, of the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory, which monitors the lobby in Brussels, pleads for a complete and publicly accessible overview of lobbyists and their meetings. Or, better yet: ‘Can you imagine if we had all had access to an overview of who lobbyists are and who they meet with in the European Parliament? And better still, if we had rules that would prevent repressive regime lobbyists from walking the corridors of the institutions unhindered? These proposals have been around for a while, but they have not been listened to,’ says Hoedeman.
For now, foreign powers have backdoor access to MEPs, without any supervision. For years, authoritarian regimes were able to lobby MEPs through so-called ‘friendship groups’. Although the European Parliament has official channels for contact with non-EU countries, it tolerates the existence of these clubs. There’s one of these friendship groups for Qatar as well, although none of the corruption suspects is a member.
2: An end to non-commitment and lack of control
If there are similarities between the many forms of ethical and integrity regulations for MEPs, it is that, firstly, these regulations are very non-committal, and secondly, they are hardly ever checked. For example, MEPs must declare any conflicts of interest, but these are barely ever verified by parliament. As early as 2019, the European Court of Auditors advised the European Parliament to monitor these declarations more stringently. Parliament’s response? Too expensive, and we don’t have a mandate for that anyway.
MEPs who face a possible conflict of interest may seek advice from the so-called Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members. But this is not mandatory, and will therefore depend on the moral compass of the MEP in question.
The fear of meting out real punishment is substantial. The committee that advises on sanctions let slip that it would rather not ‘force the president to resort to sanctions’
In 2019, then British member Andrew England Kerr said that he had not approached the committee about the fact that he owns a company operating in the defence industry, while he was at the time serving on a committee responsible for defence industry regulations. ‘I see no reason to seek advice because, to me, no conflict exists,’ Kerr said in Vrij Nederland.
The reporting of monthly office expenses and the gift register are completely voluntary as well. As of mid-2019, only six of the 705 MEPs have reported their gifts.
And whenever an MEP is found to be in violation of the code of conduct, he or she will get off with a ‘reprimand’. The fear of meting out real punishment is substantial. A few years ago, in an annual report, the committee that advises the President of Parliament on sanctions let slip that it would rather reduce the ‘risk’ than ‘force the president to resort to sanctions’.
3: Reform the hierarchy
The board of the European Parliament is called the ‘Bureau’, and consists of the President and the fourteen Vice Presidents (including Eva Kaili). It is this Bureau that, until now, has blocked or strongly weakened many proposals put forward to create greater transparency within the European Parliament. This powerful internal decision-making club regularly flouts the wishes of hundreds of colleagues. When Parliament, through a resolution, gives instructions to the Bureau, it is by no means guaranteed that the Bureau will carry them out.
A majority of Parliament decides that unused office expenses should be refunded at the end of someone's term of office? The Bureau simply refuses. After the eruption of the #Metoo scandal, a majority wants mandatory training for MEPs, in order to avoid harassment? The Bureau responds with a mere voluntary training. A majority repeatedly demands that documents discussed by the Bureau be made public? The Bureau member responsible for handling requests under the Freedom of Information Act simply says: no.
Transparency International advocates a thorough reform of this hierarchy. Aiossa: ‘The bureau has consistently been the biggest opponent of any kind of reform of ethics or financial management of allowances. They have consistently voted down reforms against the will of the majority of the house. What we are calling for is that the decision making power of the Bureau be stripped when it comes to the issues of ethics, transparency, integrity and anti-fraud and that they be re-disbursed to the relevant committees, who can then allow for the entire house to vote on reforms.’
4: Social control between MEPs
Several MEPs stated afterwards that they found the behaviour of Kaili and other social democrats’ behaviour suspicious.
On December 1st, Kaili attended a vote on visa-free travel for Qataris in the European Union, despite not being a member of the voting committee. She took a seat at the back of the room and voted along, which normally only happens (transparently) to replace an absent colleague in the political group. Birgit Sippel, a German MEP who organised the vote of the Social Democratic Group, said that she filed a complaint against Kaili after it turned out that she had participated in the vote. (This complaint has since been superseded by the judicial investigation.)
Agnes Jongerius, member of Kaili’s political group in the European Parliament on behalf of the Dutch social democrats, said she had noticed Kaili’s fiery speech in favour of Qatar, a few weeks earlier.
‘Members of Parliament simply don’t like to criticise or punish one another’s behaviour’
‘She was addressed about her views on Qatar because they deviated from the group’s political line,’ Jongerius tells Follow the Money. ‘Such a divergent point of view can lead to doubts about someone’s beliefs, and about whether they’re a good fit for our group. But we could not have imagined in our worst dreams that such a huge corruption scandal would be lurking behind it.’
The question remains why the criticism of Kaili remained private (barring some exceptions), and whether it would have led to anything at all, had the Belgian intelligence services and justice department not discovered these wrongs.
‘This speaks to this culture that has grown. Members simply don’t like to criticise or punish one another’s behaviour,’ says Aiossa of Transparency International.
Jongius says that the PvdA has always been ‘vehemently’ outspoken about the violation of human rights in Qatar, and points out that the party has supported amendments that were highly critical of the country. ‘But in a democracy, you cannot force someone else to adopt your point of view. At most, you can try to convince the other person with words.’
Should alarm bells have gone off sooner, with Jongerius or her colleagues? Aiossa isn’t sure. ‘There are a lot of political groups, with an abundance of national, cultural, and political diversity among members. Sometimes, their views are contradictory to what you would assume, based on their political family or delegation.’
5: Better whistleblower protection
Brussels is teeming with speculation about who tipped off Belgian investigators about the scandal. Qatari sources claim that their rival in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates, had something to do with it. The lobbyist for non-EU countries suggests that the tip probably came from political opponents of the socialist party in Wallonia.
Among all the speculations and theories, one was absent: that the whistleblowers may be parliamentary staff with a conscience. According to Aiossa, that is – unfortunately – an unlikely scenario, due to the lack of protection available to whistleblowers in Parliament.
‘The whistleblowing regime lacks basic protections for the staff members of Parliament. It’s really quite staggering’
‘You have multiple people on staff level in Parliament who have been arrested, detained or questioned. Did someone see something suspicious but failed to report because of a lack of protection? Maybe,’ he says.
In response to the scandal, Transparency International made a list of ten demands. Stricter prosecution is the first demand on that list, the introduction of better protection for whistleblowers the second. ‘The whistleblowing regime lacks basic protections for the staff members of Parliament. It’s really quite staggering, the difference between the protections of the EU staff and any other employees of the private sector, on levels of confidentiality, on burdens of proof, on reporting,’ says Aiossa.
The view that, for years, the European Parliament has done too little to improve its internal ethical regulations, or even to enforce the existing ones, is now widely supported.
‘Apparently, the Belgian justice department is doing what the European Parliament has apparently failed to do,’ Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. ‘The European Parliament has many resources to regulate its own functioning. This was clearly not enough.’
The European Parliament now also recognizes this. In a resolution, voted on last Thursday, Parliament acknowledges that its internal regulations have ‘failed dramatically’. MEPs are calling for regulation reforms, such as a cooling-off period for MEPs, more staff for lobby register inspectors, mandatory lobby registration for diplomats from non-EU countries, and better whistleblower protection for parliament staff.
Nicholas Aiossa remains sceptical: ‘It will be important to see whether they actually and quickly implement the reforms announced in this non-binding resolution. Their track record on the topic suggests the worst.’
The resolution received broad support: 541 members voted in favour, only two voted against. The opponents were Greek communists Kostas Papadakis and Lefteris Nikolaou-Alavanos.
Their compatriot Eva Kaili could not vote. She is still in custody.
Translation: Chris Kok