22nd Sep 2023


Editor's weekly digest: Is Qatargate your fault?

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Just as the Brussels bubble was getting ready for the last push before the holidays, the biggest corruption story in the European Parliament's recent history broke last Friday.

Now, you're probably aware of the sordid top line; a number of parliament bigwigs, their assistants and family were implicated in a bribery scandal involving bags of cash and influence bought allegedly by Qatar and Morocco.

Read and decide

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  • (Photo: Belgian Federal Police)

There are many, many, many, recaps and explainers out there, so I'll save you all that.

And while blame has been assigned all around — as James Kanter puts it in his EU Scream podcast on Qatargate (which is excellent and deserves your listen):

"Some lawmakers suggest malign foreign interference is mainly responsible. Others say non-governmental organisations and campaign groups should be in the crosshairs. Still others stress that there will always be bad apples and so there should be no need for collective guilt in a Parliament with 705 members."

Others, in turn, are kicking off campaigns for the 2024 parliament elections by trying to blame political ideology:

Which was kind of funny, because mere hours after this tweet, one of their own MEPs was accused of misappropriation of EU funds.

Anyway, I could not help but wonder what role the media have — or rather, should have — played in all of this.

Ever since I started this position managing a team of reporters covering EU affairs, I've noticed that interest in the goings-on in Brussels outside of a select group of policy-inclined individuals is quite limited.

Apart from the big decisions, few newsworthy events, discussions, debates or meetings make it through to national media. Meetings like the ones accused MEP Kaili was having with Qatari officials before all of this came to light.

I understand this, on the one hand, because there's more than enough to keep up with as a person living in a European country.

Then again, it also means that due to how resources are divided in newsrooms, Brussels doesn't get a lot of love (or journalists, to be more precise).

For a bloc that houses almost 450 million individuals, who in the end all are affected for better or worse by decisions made in Brussels, we (the media) collectively dedicate a tiny fraction of our attention to it.

Just to compare, by the latest numbers I could quickly google, Washington D.C. has around 6,500 journalists covering national politics.

Brussels has a measly 800, give or take a dozen.

What's striking in the case of Qatargate, is that the bribery was not uncovered by the parliament or its checks and balances, but by the Belgian police — an external body.

As is the press.

Over the 20 years we as EUobserver have been around, we've uncovered quite a few cases of intolerable, or even criminally transgressive, behaviour. We even got close to uncovering this story, before it broke, by noting three weeks ago that the S&D were going suspiciously soft on Qatar — but we don't have the power of arrest and search warrants to find bags of cash in people's apartments.

I can't help but wonder if Qatargate would have been uncovered sooner if we had the same number of person-hours dedicated to covering the comings and goings of the members of EU institutions as Washington has.

But that in turn would mean the overall population would have to care enough for the media to dedicate time and money to journalists covering the EU capital.

I'm not saying all this is your fault. I'm also not saying it's our fault. But I do think that collectively, we should probably care more, read more, watch more, and that should create some kind of virtuous cycle that might allow more journalists to scrutinise Brussels in the way it — quite obviously now — deserves to be.

Onwards to the stories you should not have missed this week:

Metsola pledges EU parliament reforms after bribe allegations

The plans include strengthening whistleblower protection, a ban on all unofficial parliamentary friendship groups (groups of MEPs discussing relations with non-EU countries), reviewing enforcement of code of conduct rules for MEPs, and new rules interactions with officials from non-EU countries.

Read it.

EU Ombudsman: How to restore the European Parliament's reputation

One of the most striking features of this scandal is the fact that it was the Belgian police — working on this case for months — who spotted what was arguably hiding in plain sight, writes EU Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly.

Read it.

EU secures deal with Hungary, unblocks joint aid to Ukraine

In the last-minute deal, the EU unblocked Hungary's opposition to joint financial assistance to Ukraine and the bloc's adoption of the global minimum tax.

Read it.

Over 4,000 Frontex documents published by German NGO

Over 4,000 documents from the EU's border police agency Frontex, including freedom of information request responses, are now public.

The files were uploaded and published on Tuesday (13 December) by the German-based transparency group FragDenStaat.

EUobserver was given advanced access and had combed through the documents in an effort to better understand an EU agency accused of complicity in the violation of fundamental rights and as well as one often shrouded in secrecy.

Read it.

EU couldn't handle a million refugees, how will it handle a billion?

There could be 1.2 billion refugees in next 30 years. Many will be from my part of the world — Africa — where droughts, conflict, and food insecurity already threaten millions.

In fact, more evidence shows the 'next Afghanistan' is not in the Middle East but in Africa, specifically West Africa where religious violence, political corruption, weak states, and the devastating impacts of climate change have combined to create an unprecedented crisis. In the last 15 years, terrorism across the region has increased tenfold.

Read it.

Monetary austerity risks derailing EU green agenda, economists warn

The ECB announced another rate hike on Thursday, but economists warn that increasing capital costs will hurt the EU's shift to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Read it.

EU negotiators agree on historic carbon tariff

After 10 gruelling hours of overnight negotiations that lasted until five in the morning on Tuesday (13 December), the EU reached a deal on a border tariff for carbon-intensive goods, ending 20 years of discussions.

The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is designed to shield EU industries against the risk of outsourcing production to regions with lower environmental standards, where the cost of compliance is lower. The hope is it will incentivise countries outside of the EU to follow suit.

Read it.

EU calls for new joint debt tool to compete with US clean-tech

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said Europe must "beef up" investments in green energy and technology if it wants to compete with China and the US in the race to net zero.

Read it.

Next EU sanctions to strike at Russia's pro-war media

Upcoming EU sanctions will strike at Russia's media bullhorn, while shedding light on the horrors behind the propaganda facade.

Draft new EU blacklists of 144 individuals include popular Russian TV presenters Boris Korchevnikov and Marina Evgenievna Kim, singer Grigory Lepservidze, and writers Dmitry Puchkov, Nikita Mikhalov, and Sergey Mikheev.

Read it.

Russian fertiliser kings to get EU sanctions relief

Six Russian fertiliser and chemicals barons will partly get off the hook on EU sanctions, in the first significant loosening of EU measures since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Read it.

For those who noticed, I was out on holiday for the past two Fridays. The newsletter will resume its regular pace from now on.

And as always, thank you to all new subscribers to this newsletter, and also as always, my various inboxes are open for feedback, suggestions, tips, leaks, ideas and gossip — now also on Mastodon.

See you next week,


The stories you should have read in 2022

I won't bore you with platitudes about what a momentous year this has been, you'll probably have enough of those conversations tomorrow at your New Year's Eve. So here are our favourite stories of the year, in no particular order.

Okay, alright, AI might be useful after all

Large Language Models could give the powers trained data-journalists wield, to regular boring journalists like me — who don't know how to use Python. And that makes me tremendously excited, to be honest.

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