17th Mar 2018

MEPs to limit anti-fraud investigations

  • Three MEPs in 2011 were caught on camera accepting bribes to influence legislation (Photo: Sunday Times)

The European Parliament on Monday (8 October) agreed to allow the European Commission's anti-fraud office, Olaf, "immediate and unannounced access" to the premises of any EU institution suspected of fraud.

But the text says the regulation must still apply the parliament's "statute for members," which grants MEPs immunity "from any measure of detention and from legal proceedings." Only the parliament can waive the immunity.

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According to the final text, the parliament would be informed in advance of any Olaf attempt to enter an MEP's office.

"[Olaf] cannot intrude on the rights of members on the basis of rumours," said German centre-right MEP Inge Graessle, who negotiated the parliament's position.

The text also calls upon Olaf and the parliament to work out an agreement that would respect the "freedom and independence" of deputies and their assistants.

The debate over Olaf's access to MEP offices kicked off when Austrian euro-deputy and former interior minister Ernst Strasser was caught on tape last year accepting a bribe to influence legislation.

Journalists from the UK's Sunday Times newspaper posed as lobbyists and covertly filmed the transaction. They also taped Slovenian centre-right Zoran Thaler and Adrian Severin of Romania making similar deals.

Thaler resigned ,while Severin is still a deputy after accepting €12,000 for "two to three days" work.

Romanian authorities in July charged Severin for defrauding over €400,000 from the EU budget after allegedly filing fake invoices over a three-year period.

Meanwhile, Vienna prosecutors charged Strasser in August with corruption in a trial that could see him serve 10 years in prison.

Immunity clause dropped

Deputies had also tried to reinforce the final text in their favour by introducing a so-called immunity clause that would essentially prevent Olaf from conducting on-site investigations.

The clause failed to get into the final resolution because it was tabled too "late" by the parliament's legal services, said Graessle.

Graessle claims the amendment is necessary to protect MEPs from false accusations.

All 27 member states opposed the immunity clause and argued the amendment would unfairly grant MEPs and their assistants additional immunities.

Specifically, the clause noted that deputies and their assistants could only be subject to criminal investigations "led by the competent national authorities in accordance with the applicable rules on immunities."

For her part, Emer Traynor, the commission's spokeswoman on audit and anti-fraud, said such an amendment would essentially grant MEPs greater immunity privileges than those enjoyed by other EU institutions.

"To grant the MEPs greater immunity than the other EU actors would have set a dangerous precedent," she noted.

The EU institutions, including the parliament, are covered under the protocol of immunities that requires any investigating bodies to respect a set of rules when conducting criminal or judicial investigations.

Olaf only conducts "administrative investigations" and so falls outside the remit of the protocol, says the commission.

But Graessle argues that euro-deputies need greater protection because of their political duties.

"Members belong to the less protected group [compared to other EU institutions]. We are less protected than a normal citizen," she said.

The parliament is likely to adopt the text in its next Strasbourg plenary later this month.

Romanian MEP charged with defrauding over €400,000

Adrian Severin, a Romanian MEP accused of having taken bribes from journalists posing as lobbyists, has been charged with siphoning €436,000 from the EU budget to bogus consultancy firms in Romania. He is still in office, claiming his innocence.

Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case

The European Commission repeated that it followed the rules when its former head joined Goldman Sachs - and suggested it will not follow the EU Ombudsman's demand to refer the case back to the ethics committee.

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