Follow the money in "Qatargate"

The EU Parliament corruption scandal exposes weaknesses in Brussels' transparency rules and reporting obligations
Lawyers for former European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, center right, and Andre Risopoulos, center left, speak with the media at the courthouse in Brussels, Thursday

Lawyers for former European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, center right, and Andre Risopoulos, center left, speak with the media at the courthouse in Brussels, Thursday

© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Olivier Matthys

The noose of accusations against top European politicians is tightening. For a few days in mid-December, new reports came to light every day that discredited the European Union's only institution with direct democratic legitimacy, the European Parliament. The damage is considerable. If the European Union does not want to lose the last trust of its citizens to the already existing Euroscepticism, it must act quickly and reform its institutions to counteract the image of an elitist and self-enriching political caste. A look at the current rules and possible reform ideas reveals that there is definitely still room for improvement.

The liberal prime minister of Belgium, Alexander de Croo, stated in his first press statement a few days after the corruption scandal surrounding the Greek MEP Eva Kaili was uncovered, which might only represent the tip of the iceberg of further defamations, that the "Belgian judiciary would do what the European Parliament has not done." With this, he openly puts his finger in the wound of the insufficient defensibility of the European people's representation, which, despite a special committee for foreign influence (INGE and ING2), did not itself see any of the numerous corruption incidents coming. On the other hand, De Croo has an easy time of it. Apart from measures such as the establishment of registers and codes of conduct, the European Parliament has no police powers, cannot take oaths, for example, and is therefore dependent on the judiciary of the country in which it is based. It is a fact that the leadership of the European Parliament has cooperated with the Belgian investigators from the start.

Prohibition of corruption is written in the Code of Conduct of the European Parliament

The Parliament's Code of Conduct states that EU parliamentarians must not "act in the interest of any other legal or natural person" and are bound by the principle of "disinterestedness, integrity, transparency, diligence, honesty, responsibility and respect for the good name of the Parliament." In addition, members may not "financially benefit or receive any other gratuity" as they serve the "public interest." In addition to these basic moral principles, Members of Parliament also have reporting obligations when they meet a lobbying representative, but only in certain constellations: Lobby meetings only have to be listed on the parliamentary website if the respective MP is responsible for a specific political dossier as rapporteur or shadow rapporteur or as committee chair. Excluded from this, therefore, are all other members of parliament and precisely their sometimes almost even more influential staff members, who prepare the individual positions in detail as part of the intra-parliamentary negotiations. Also exempt from these reporting obligations is the leadership level of the parliament, i.e. the president, vice-presidents or parliamentary group chairmen. All other members of parliament can publish lobby meetings, but on a voluntary basis. Members of Parliament may also engage in paid sideline activities if these do not constitute a conflict of interest and they make their income public.

It is estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 lobbyists work in Brussels. About 12,000 organizations are registered in the EU's so-called transparency register, which was set up in 2011 under an agreement between the Parliament and the Commission and it has its own secretariat. These organisations have turned over an annual lobbying budget of €1.8 billion, according to Tranparency international. The Council of Ministers has also been part of the register since the end of 2020 and had observer status since 2014. Also according to Transparency International, between June 2019 and July 2022, about 28,000 meetings took place between European parliamentarians and lobbyists, with only about half listed in the transparency register. Among them, liberal and green MEPs listed the most of their lobbying activities.  As recently as April 2021, the European Parliament had passed a resolution calling for stronger enforcement of transparency rules and also taking into account the changed conditions of the Corona pandemic, where indirect lobbying increased. In doing so, Parliament criticized, for example, the fact that the permanent representations of the member states to the EU have so far only been required to disclose their activities on a voluntary basis.

It is a fiendishly difficult matter. Parliamentarians are open to all kinds of influence, and so they should be, for example from citizens, organizations and economic actors in their constituencies and from their own parties. But also from everyone else, including family members, friends, former colleagues, and so on. It would be over-bureaucratic to record all of this in registers. Ultimately, they must independently and in good conscience draw their own conclusions from a wide range of information and opinions. On the other hand, there are the official lobbyists in Brussels, who should of course be registered, regardless of whether they represent economic interests or are issue-based, like NGOs and trade unions. And there is no doubt that the payment of money, the promise of a future job or even VIP tickets to the Wimbledon final or a Formula 1 race go far beyond what is acceptable.

Investigative or special committee, enforceability and ethics authority

The European Parliament is one of the most transparent parliaments in Europe, but its rules on registration have focused on official lobbyists - which is logical, since they do most of the lobbying. The rules did not previously apply to third countries, and this loophole is now being closed. In fact, by a large majority - only two MPs voted against - Parliament immediately agreed on a package of much stricter rules for its members and staff members, which Parliament Speaker Roberta Metsola will translate into concrete proposals. The inter-institutional independent ethics board, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has put back on the agenda, was already called for by the Parliament in September 2021 - but it has to be proposed by the European Commission and that has not yet happened.

There are also calls to set up a committee of inquiry. The FDP politician in the EU Home Affairs Committee, Moritz Körner, noted on Deutschlandfunk that the legal possibilities of the EU Parliament are, however, less pronounced than is the case, for example, in the Bundestag, where witnesses are liable to prosecution if they make false statements. On December 15, the Parliament decided to set up a special committee to evaluate the current lobbying regulations. In addition, members of parliament are to disclose their assets in the future and observe a waiting period before they can become lobbyists themselves.

Even if the call for ever newer EU bodies and agencies is unlikely to contribute to the EU's lean governance, it is clear that, apart from the existing rules, the biggest problem at present is the enforceability of the rules. Extending the rules to all parliamentary staff is a logical and necessary next step. But the problem of enforceability also arises for the European Commission, as so far no oversight body monitors the requirement that commissioners and their senior officials disclose all their lobbying meetings. The European Parliament has now suggested a role for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), the EU Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust), Europol and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

Unfortunately it is also clear that this particular case could not have been prevented by any rules of procedure or transparency or lobby register regulations. Even the best rules of conduct do not help if someone displays criminal intent, will be corrupted, breaks criminal laws and belongs to a criminal organization. Only criminal law can help.

Although the Greek Socialist Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili, who was immediately dismissed from all her functions by the European Parliament with only one dissenting vote, has become the public face of the scandal, the mastermind of the criminal organization is an Italian former Socialist MEP, Pier Antonio Panzeri, who was arrested together with his wife and daughter, and his accomplices include other Italians linked to the Socialist group, including Eva Kaili's partner, Francesco Giorgi. Belgian authorities are not releasing information to the public, but according to Belgian and Italian media reports, Giorgi has admitted that he was part of Panzeri's group that facilitated the funneling of bribes from Qatar and Morocco to parliamentarians in exchange for influence over EU policy. Kaili claims that she is innocent and was betrayed by Giorgi. In addition to Kaili, another MP, Walloon Socialist Marc Tarabella, is under investigation but has not been arrested. This week the Belgian investigating judge in charge of the case, Michel Claise, who is known for his fight against corruption, decided to prolong the pre-trial detention of the main suspects Giorgi and Panzeri by a month, and on Thursday evening of Kaili too.

Panzeri's non-governmental organization Fight Impunity also allegedly transferred five-figure sums to Italian trade unionist Luca Visentini, who was then running for the presidency of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Prior to this year's World Cup in Qatar, human rights group FairSquare wrote to the ITUC to express concern that the federation had "failed to speak out against serious abuses by the Qatari authorities." Meanwhile ITUC suspended Visentini. At least one (former) EU commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, also received money as compensation for serving on the organization's board. His involvement ended in March of this year. Panzeri was well connected, and several prominent figures were honorary board members of his organization. They all resigned.

The Socialist Group is obviously particularly embarrassed by this scandal. Kaili was immediately expelled from the group, and Tarabella had himself suspended while the investigation took place. A number of influential Socialists, all of them Italian, resigned from their posts, partly because some of their staff were under investigation. The court case will reveal the extent to which other MEPs and other political groups are involved. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that the two countries focused exclusively on one or two not very influential politicians; on the other hand, no other names have yet surfaced in the rumor mill.

What is there to gain?

The big question is what Qatar and Morocco hoped to gain from this. Morocco is shrouding itself in silence. Qatar vehemently denies any involvement. This is reminiscent of the FIFA scandal following the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar. Several (now former) FIFA board members are under investigation for corruption, but so far no evidence has surfaced that the State of Qatar itself was actually involved in any bribery.

If Qatar was involved, one must conclude that the funds were misspent in a spectacular fashion. There was one situation where Eva Kaili tried to make a (non-legislative and non-binding) resolution of the European Parliament more positive regarding the human rights situation in Qatar, and that was rejected. The European Commission's proposal to allow Qataris visa-free access to the European Union was sent back to the parliamentary committee this month for reconsideration.

Bribing the European Parliament is extremely difficult anyway, given that it has more than 700 members. And even just bribing MEPs who have influence over a bill is difficult because the rules they are subject to are much stricter than for other MEPs and the risk of being found out is enormous. In addition, the Parliament cannot make its own proposals. The proposals have to come from the European Commission, which would therefore have to be bribed first. And after the European Parliament, European governments have an equal say as co-legislators in the European Council. In short, the somewhat Byzantine European decision-making process provides excellent protection against corruption. That is not to say it is impossible, but it takes an incredibly smart campaign to buy influence in the EU, and there is a great risk that the plot will be exposed. Which is exactly what happened in the Qatar-Morocco case.

Nevertheless, it is important that this case be solved as quickly as possible, and that any other cases are brought to light. After all, corruption is a major problem in the European Union, especially when it comes to the use of European taxpayers' money in the context of structural funds, infrastructure projects, etc. Hungary is already being held accountable by the European Parliament (the Kaili case provided some light relief for Victor Orban), and it is unlikely that Hungary is the biggest culprit. The institutions in Brussels need to get their own house in order if they are to speak with authority about cases of corruption in the use of EU funds. The European Parliament, as well as the European Commission and member state representations, are now under a microscope and must seize this opportunity.

Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager at the Brussels office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
Jules Maaten is Regional
Director at the Brussels Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.