24th Mar 2018

MEPs say Panama Papers probe more difficult than Dieselgate

  • The Panama Papers got its name from a cache of 11.5 million leaked documents from a Panama-based law firm (Photo: Pablo Garcia Saldaña)

Lead MEPs from the European Parliament's inquiry committee investigating the Panama Papers said they have had a more difficult job than the committee responsible for probing Dieselgate.

“You cannot compare us with the Dieselgate probe, because we needed to do worldwide research as well as internally in the European Union,” said Werner Langen, chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into Money Laundering, Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion.

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  • Chairman Werner Langen (l) with key witness Jean-Claude Juncker, EU commission chief and former prime minister of Luxembourg (Photo: European Parliament)

He spoke at a press conference in Brussels on Thursday (8 June), held to mark the one-year anniversary of the establishment of the committee, which is known in the EU bubble as the Pana committee – short for Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers is the name of an April 2016 leak of several millions of documents from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Dieselgate is the popular label for the car emissions scandal that began in September 2015 with Volkswagen's emissions fraud, which EUobserver investigated extensively.

Both scandals were the subject to EU parliamentary probes, with the Dieselgate committee, established in December 2015 – the first EU committee of inquiry in ten years.

While the Dieselgate committee wrapped up its work within the one-year mandate, the Pana committee has requested, and received, two three-month extensions.

“Right from the start we said that twelve months wouldn't be enough,” said Langen, a centre-right German MEP.

The committee expects to present its draft findings next month, with a plenary vote to be scheduled in November or December of this year.

Czech Liberal MEP Petr Jezek, who will be one of the co-authors of the report, said – “meaning no disrespect” – but the difference between the two committees was that the Dieselgate issue “was very well-defined” and condense, whereas the Panama investigation has “many layers, geographical differences, and a number of pieces of legislation” related to it.

Lack of powers

The Pana committee faced some of the same problems as the Dieselgate committee.

European Parliament inquiry committees are unable to drag unwilling witnesses in front of the stand, and testimonies are not given under oath. Access to documents has also been a challenge.

Danish centre-left MEP Jeppe Kofod, the other co-author of the report, said that the EU parliament needs powers similar to those of the US Congress.

“I would like to see that for the future. If we want to take this seriously, we need to have more power,” said Kofod.

“But the problem is of course, I would say, that many member states would probably be very reluctant to grant those types of competences to the European Parliament.”

He was backed by Jezek, who added: “Unfortunately it is not up to us to increase power.” That is instead up to the national governments of the member states.

Shortly after the press conference, the parliament's far-left group GUE/NGL published a press release, in which its Pana member, Fabio De Masi, said the committee's powers are “insufficient in order to live up to public expectation”.

The MEP noted that the parliament suggested in 2012 to improve its rights of inquiry.

“But for the past five years, the Council and Commission have not moved an inch on this matter,” said De Masi.

Political pressure

The MEPs at the press conference were convinced that their work had a positive contribution.

“Despite our limited legal powers, we still obtained a lot within the framework we actually have,” said Kofod.

He noted that the investigative work was being done in parallel to several proposals for legislative changes, which are in the pipeline in the EU institutions.

The committee's existence is “fundamental in putting pressure to move ahead the tax justice agenda in Europe”, said Kofod.

They also acknowledged that there was some room for improvement.

MEP Jezek said that the method of questioning “doesn't work well”, but that this goes for all EU parliament committees.

He said that because speaking-time is strictly appointed in slots, and divided among MEPs by political group size, it is easy for a guest to give evasive replies without having to fear critical follow-ups.

65 members

EUobserver also asked what the MEPs thought about the size of their committee.

The Panama Papers committee comprises 65 members, whereas the Dieselgate committee had 45.

The co-author of the Dieselgate committee report, Dutch Liberal Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, recently told EUobserver in an interview that even 45 was too many, and that the team should have consisted of "10 to 12" people.

Chairman Werner said that it is mainly the group coordinators and shadow rapporteurs who were most active at hearings, but that he could not immediately give a figure.

“I assume that when it comes to the important meetings, some two-thirds of the members were present,” said Werner.

However, a look at the minutes, published on the EU parliament's website, revealed a different picture.

The first ten meetings with hearings were attended by an average of 40 MEPs. However, that figure only tells you how many MEPs signed the attendance sheet.

EUobserver's experience at the Dieselgate committee is that few MEPs actually stay for the full length of the hearings.

In the case of the Panama Papers committee, the questions are asked by a core group of MEPs. On average, 17 MEPs spoke, and it was often the same ones.

MEPs grill Juncker on tax scandals

EU commission head made new concessions on tax justice, but denied responsibility for Luxembourg tax-dodging schemes when he led the country.

MEPs demand stronger rules against tax evasion

MEPs in the civil liberties and economic committees voted in favour of toughening up EU wide rules on tax evasion, as they gear up for institutional talks in March on the EU's anti-money laundering directive.

Malta denies secrecy in 'Paradise Papers' leak

Malta's finance minister Edward Scicluna told reporters that the Maltese-based entities named in the latest tax avoidance leaks are all listed on a public register. "There was no secrecy whatsoever," he said.

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