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5th Feb 2023

Qatargate? EU parliament's culture of impunity is its own creation

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In the wake of the largest corruption scandal to hit the European Parliament in over a decade, its president Roberta Metsola blamed "malign actors linked to autocratic third countries" after Belgian police found bags of cash at the home of vice-president Eva Kaili.

But the parliament, and especially its Bureau, has for years seeded a culture of impunity where MEPs and assistants can get away with almost anything.

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Belgium's prime minister Alexander De Croo alluded to such after four people were arrested, including Kaili, for allegedly taking some €1.5m in bribes from Qatar. "Belgian justice is doing what the European Parliament has failed to do," he had said.

The Belgians had been on the case for months. Metsola said the European Parliament had been working with the Belgian authorities "for some time" on the probe as well, posing questions as to why she then kept Kaili on as her official envoy to the Middle East.

At the centre of this impunity is the Bureau, a political body composed of the president, its 14 vice-presidents, and five so-called Quaestors or MEPs responsible for internal parliament matters.

"There is open opposition from any kind of reforms from the leaders of the house, which comes in the form of the Bureau," said Nicholas Aiossa, deputy director of Transparency International in Brussels.

Around €5k/month for 'office supplies'

Among them is German vice-president Rainer Wieland of the centre-right European Peoples Party.

Over four years ago in the corridors of the European Parliament, Wieland explained to EUobserver why transparency is a bureaucratic nightmare that is too expensive to implement.

His comments were geared towards a monthly lump sum of an office allowance expense handed out to each MEP, costing the taxpayer some €40m annually.

Untraceable, no receipts, and sent straight into their bank accounts means the funds can be spent on anything.

Asked why the public should not be allowed to see how their elected MEPs spend their money, he responded by saying "because I consider this as not really important".

Wieland also claimed the parliament would have to hire dozens of people to audit the accounts, an argument that has since been debunked.

At the time, he was spearheading reforms to build public trust in the European Parliament.

Klaus Welle, the secretary-general of the European Parliament, made similar comments.

"The one parliament which is providing the most detailed expenditure is the US congress and they are most unpopular parliament of all," he told EUobserver, also in 2018.

"So all those who believe that this is the road to become popular, forget about it," he said.

An internal document leaked to the Guardian revealed Wieland earlier this year spent almost €690,000 of tax payer money on office renovations on the 15th floor of the European parliament in Brussels, including a €25,000 ceiling light.

And efforts for greater transparency into the lump sum office allowance were unsurprisingly dashed by the Bureau, based on Wieland's recommendations, this past October, despite the overwhelming demand by MEPs.

Perhaps most of those who voted in favour of office expense allowance transparency also knew it would never happen. The liberal Renew Europe group had even tabled amendments to water it down.

But the office allowance scandal is just one of a number of other thorny issues that the Bureau has failed to take on seriously.

Autocratic Third Countries

Metsola qualified the attack against the European Parliament as a "test of our values and of our systems."

She is also aware that MEPs have for years been setting up so-called friendship groups to circumvent public scrutiny when dealing with foreign regimes and governments.

Unregulated, the groups have mushroomed giving shady government figures a valuable lobbying foothold inside the European Parliament.

EUobsever obtained a list of some 40 groups in 2018 ranging from pariah governments in Azerbaijan to despot autocracies in Turkey.

Former Italian socialist Pier Antonio Panzeri, who is now in jail over allegations for corruption and money laundering linked to Qatar, was in 2016 complaining about the groups.

"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 had once told this website.

When he made those comments, the Qatari friendship group was chaired by Romania's centre-right MEP, Ramona Manescu.

In April 2018, she invited EU journalists on a government-financed trip to Qatar to discuss "EU-Qatar relations, human rights, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup."

EUobserver declined.

Under pressure to provide some oversight, the Bureau introduced meaningless rules at the end of 2019 requiring MEPs to make declarations of any support, cash or in kind.

Those declarations were to be handed to the European Parliament Quaestors, the small group of five MEPs sitting on the Bureau.

Not a single MEP sitting on the friendship groups has made a declaration since the rule was enacted.

Weak internal oversight

Jan Zahradil, the Czech MEP from the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), chaired the EU friendship group with Vietnam in 2018.

He also had ties to the ruling repressive communist state regime in Hanoi, a point he failed to declare when he became the lead MEP to negotiate a trade deal with Vietnam in 2019 and at a time when he was vice-chair of the parliament's powerful International Trade Committee.

He resigned as the lead MEP on the file a day after being exposed by EUobserver.

Belgian conservative MEP, Geert Bourgeois, came to his immediate defence and took up the file on Zahradil's behalf.

"Dear Jan, you did a great job. I'll do my best to honor your good and hard work so far," said Bourgeois.

The accolade is nothing special, except that Bourgeois also chaired a code of conduct committee tasked to ensure ethics are respected.

So it comes as no surprise that a committee composed of MEPs designed to police other MEPs has so far resulted in only a handful of violations and zero sanctions.

Less than two years later, Zahradil was again accused of failing to properly disclose financial support from the Chinese Mission to the EU.

Today, he is pushing for an Indo-Pacific strategy on trade and investment on behalf of the European Parliament.

Lobbying and second jobs

Six years ago, the president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, a German socialist, brokered a deal with centre-right EPP group.

The plan scuppered a vote that aimed to ban second and third jobs held by MEPs.

It came amid a Socialist-led effort to also muffle criticism against Schulz over allegations he used parliament resources during his campaign to become the president of the European Commission.

Over one quarter of the bloc's 705 MEPs have declared side-jobs, collectively worth between €3.9m and €11.5m in outside earnings.

Failing to properly declare such jobs could lead to suspicions of outside influence swaying an MEP's judgement, especially if they legislate on issues dear to their private paymasters.

The EPP did a similar trick in early 2019 when they forced the plenary to hold a secret ballot on transparency.

At the time, Vitor Teixeira, a policy officer at the Brussels-based Transparency International EU, described the vote as absurd.

Among the measures to be voted on was a mandatory register for lobbyists, a plan pushed by the European Commission.

Culture shock

The same commission has now promised an independent ethics body. But has yet to present a proposal. German Green MEP Daniel Freund has been trying to kick start the process, amid resistance from the EPP.

Today, the parliament is trying to shift the blame of its own lacklustre oversights by claiming they have been waiting for the commission's proposal for over a year.

But the parliament does not need the commission to clean up its own act. The Bureau can propose rules to revise the code of conduct, toughen up its ethics oversight committee, and improve internal whistleblower protection rules.

It convenes on the Monday of the first parliament session in 2023. It will also be a date to test whether its culture of impunity continues.

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