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17th Jan 2021

Investigation

MEP friendship groups offer 'backdoor' for pariah regimes

  • Not all friendship groups are with 'pariah' regimes, but they give well-financed foreign governments a foothold in the European Parliament (Photo: European Parliament)

MEPs who want to circumvent public scrutiny when dealing with foreign regimes and governments are setting up so-called friendship groups.

These unregulated bodies have mushroomed over the years, causing headaches for official MEP delegations, while giving shady government figures a valuable lobbying foothold inside the European Parliament.

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  • Not all friendship groups are with 'pariah' regimes, but they give well-financed foreign governments a foothold in the European Parliament (Photo: EUobserver)

Friendship groups do not represent the European Parliament - but are sometimes quoted in local media as if they had official status, including views that can contradict official parliament lines.

The issue has become so contentious that internal moves are underway to try to impose some sense of order. Earlier this year, parliament president Antonio Tajani received a letter, seen by this website, which demanded a better code of conduct rules and sanctions.

It stated, among other things, that friendship groups risk conflict of interests, inappropriate behaviour, and damage to "the image and the prestige" of European Parliament.

The letter was co-drafted by the head of the conference of delegation chairs, Spanish socialist MEP Ines Ayala Sender, and German centre-right MEP David McAllister who leads the committee for foreign affairs.

It listed over 40 groups, ranging from pariah governments in Azerbaijan to Turkey. (See here for the full PDF list.)

One of the more bizarre outfits, which is not listed, is the Judea and Samaria group. Its members count far right nationalists like Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaf and was co-founded by Yoss Dagan, who heads a virulently pro-Israeli lobby group.

Among its big objectives is to "stop funding of Palestinian terrorism from the European Union budget".

Its chair and fellow founder, Czech MEP Petr Mach, earlier this year introduced a resolution in the EU parliament in a doomed bid to get Jerusalem recognised as the capital of Israel.

Qatar, Bahrain, Morocco, Israel

People who support such groups claim that they offer a valuable conduit in the hopes of opening up greater diplomatic channels. They also say that the groups are billed to increase cultural understanding, promote values, and better inform the public.

But when EUobserver asked a number of MEPs to therefore discuss them, they were either "too busy" or never responded.

Romanian centre-right MEP Ramona Manescu, however invited this reporter, among others, on a government-financed trip to Qatar at the end of April to discuss "EU-Qatar relations, human rights, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup." Manescu also chairs the group for Lebanon.

Three years ago, Italian socialist Pier Antonia Panzeri, who at the time led the chair of the conference of delegation chairs, raised similar complaints with European parliament president Martin Schulz. Nothing was done.

"These friendship groups have been used and are used today by these countries in order to avoid having formal relations with the institutional body," he told EUobserver earlier this week.

He also said more serious issues like human rights are skirted or whitewashed.

Such informal groups, under the parliament's own rules of procedure, "may not engage in any activities, which might result in confusion with the official activities of parliament or its bodies."

It means major issues like trade, politics, security, are generally off the table.

Ivo Vajgl, a Slovenian liberal MEP, chairs the friendship group for Bahrain and is planning his first trip to the country sometime this year.

His office told this website that friendship groups seeks to promote a better understanding of the country in question to the wider public and to other MEPs. But when pressed, his office was also unable to give details.

"We don't have a website, it is quite informal let's say, between the members who are part of the friendship group, we don't communicate a lot, we don't have a website," it said.

Some others are more public.

French socialist MEP Gilles Pargneaux chairs the EU-Morocco friendship group and takes a pro-government position on the disputed territory of the Western Sahara to the contentious EU fishery and agricultural agreements with Rabat.

Last year he drafted a letter to the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini pushing for even closer economic and commercial relations with Morocco. He then posted the letter onto the EU-Morocco friendship group website.

The group, set up in 2011, has cultivated close ties with Morocco and has gained high-level access to government officials.

When it visited Laayone, the biggest city in the disputed Western Sahara territory, in 2015 and 2016, they were quoted as representing a "European delegation." Pargneaux himself described it as a "trans-partisan delegation of European deputies."

But those visits took place in a politically-charged context given that the European Court of Justice, in December 2015, had annulled a 2012 EU Morocco agreement over the Western Sahara.

According to Morocco's ambassador to the European Union, Ahmed Chami, the friendship group is not financed by his government.

"The main objective, is to promote relationships, to explain more about Morocco, to do some cultural events, these are the underlying objectives of these groups," he told this website.

Pargneaux, for his part, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

His financial interest declaration says in 2016 he received monthly payments for "occasional educational activities," around the same time he reportedly took over as head of the British International School in Casablanca.

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