21st Jun 2021

Row intensifies over investigation into MEP scandal

  • OLAF was set up in 1999 in the wake of corruption allegations surrounding the Santer commission (Photo: OLAF)

Pressure is mounting on European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek to allow EU investigators into the offices of MEPs implicated in the latest cash-for-amendments scandal, as the standoff with the EU's anti-fraud office (OLAF) runs into its second week.

Parliament's Green group on Wednesday (30 March) backed OLAF to carry out an investigation into the four MEPs alleged by the Sunday Times to have filed legislative amendments in return for offers of money.

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Buzek has so far refused a role for the EU anti-fraud team, arguing that its mandate is strictly limited to abuses related to the EU budget. But in a rapid exchange of letters last week, OLAF's secretary general Giovanni Kessler warned the Polish politician to back down.

"Refusing OLAF to investigate in these cases on parliament's premises is a breach of the obligations under article 13 of the TEU [EU Treaty]," states Kessler's letter, seen by this website.

Centre-right MEP Ingeborg Grassle, parliament's pointswoman on OLAF's legal basis, rallied behind the position of the legislature's president however, calling for a fresh debate on OLAF's role in the future. "They are trying to increase their remit. They have enough to do without intervening on a weak legal basis," she said.

Judges may eventually be called in to rule on the issue. "It's a legal issue between institutions. They usually end up in court if there's no decision," an OLAF official said on condition of anonymity.

Transparency groups say the standoff is both remarkable and dangerous, citing concerns that vital evidence could be destroyed during the current limbo.

"One thing you can be sure of is that parliament's internal investigation is not going to be sufficient. There are going to be too many vested interests," Olivier Hoedeman of Corporate Europe Observatory said, indicating he would support a probe by the Belgian authorities or OLAF.

"The determination in which parliament has acted to keep OLAF out is remarkable, compared to their laxness in allowing conflicts of interest in the past. They have been unwilling to install stricter codes of conduct for MEPs, it could have prevented this latest scandal."

The large number of MEPs with additional paid jobs has attracted growing criticism in recent days, as has the tendency of some MEPs to blindly file legislative amendments requested by businesses or lobby groups. "It's a small jump to then accept money for amendments," said Hoedeman.

Others such as veteran anti-corruption campaigner Monica Macovei, a former justice minister in Romania and current MEP in parliament's centre-right EPP group, have called for a ban on euro-deputies pursuing additional paid jobs, frequently in the consultancy domain.

Buzek has so far said parliament will overhaul its code of conduct, but has remained silent on the question of parallel jobs. His office did not answer multiple calls on Wednesday.

The scandal and whether OLAF should play a role in the investigation is set to dominate a meeting between Buzek and parliamentary group leaders on Thursday, as senior parliamentary officials attempt to halt the damage being caused to the institution's already-weak reputation.

One parliamentary official conceded the OLAF question was "burning up the telephones" at the moment, while another said "it's hard for Buzek to back down after his strong stance last week".

The second official denied Buzek was attempting a cover-up. "I don't think he is trying to avoid anything, it's more likely plain stupidity from one of his legal advisors."

In a separate case to the Sunday Times allegations, an Austrian conservative MEP Hella Ranner threw in the towel on Tuesday after a different newspaper, Austria's Kurier, claimed she planned to pay back business debt using money set aside for parliamentary expenses.

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