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4th Feb 2023

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MEPs should fund own foreign trips, German Green says

  • German Green MEP Niklas Nienaß speaking in the EU Parliament plenary chamber last week (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)
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MEPs should pay for their own foreign trips to avoid suspicion of undue influence, a German member of the European Parliament (EP) has said, after rebelling over a recent visit to Azerbaijan.

"We get a budget from taxpayers for expenses like this to unquestionably ensure independence and integrity," German Green MEP Niklas Nienaß told EUobserver.

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But there's also "a lot of so called 'friendship groups' to various countries in the [EU] Parliament, which offer nice trips and exclusive gatherings outside the official EP protocol," he said.

"You'd think that a paid vacation or a nice party wouldn't change your stance on political issues. But then, if it isn't working, why do the [foreign] regimes continue to pay for it?," Nienaß added.

The MEP spoke out after resigning, last week, from "Rumra & Smart villages", a cross-party group dealing with investment in remote regions.

MEPs' expenses are paid for by the EP when they travel on official delegations.

They also get a special allowance of €4,716 a year to spend on unofficial foreign work trips. They are meant to declare any gift or hospitality worth over €150.

But two of Nienaß' former Rumra colleagues, German liberal MEP Engin Eroglu and Slovenian conservative MEP Franc Bogovič, as well as five of their European Parliament staff, last September travelled to Zangilan, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, partly on Baku's payroll.

They covered their own flights, but neglected to declare that Azerbaijan put them up at the Marriot hotel in Baku and wined and dined them on their four-day trip, which included visits to a vineyard, a carpet museum, and tourist attractions.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the scene of recent ethnic warfare between Azerbaijan and Armenia and senior Western diplomats don't go there for fear of looking like they're taking Azerbaijan's side.

Azerbaijan, a fearsome dictatorship, has a reputation for shady PR tactics and so-called caviar diplomacy — luxury trips for foreign politicians in return for favours.

It is also negotiating new energy deals with the EU, bypassing Russia, in an intrigue of geopolitical proportions.

But amid the obvious potential for controversy around Rumra's trip to Zangilan, Nienaß' fellow MEPs planned the trip behind his back, he said.

"Everybody knew that this is a politically-delicate request and that I have advocated for the highest level of independence from the start of the intergroup [Rumra]. Yet, I was knowingly left out," Nienaß said.

"Trust has been broken that we built up among years," he said of his resignation.

Eroglu had been a hawkish critic of Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev prior to his trip. But both he and Bogovič spoke well of Azerbaijan while they were there and after coming back.

And even though no one was levelling accusations of corruption, their handling of the Zangilan visit risked further harming the parliament's reputation in the wake of the Qatargate bribery affair, Nienaß indicated.

"I wouldn't put this trip in the same basket as Qatargate. But, of course, it shows how third countries try to influence EU law makers. And that it is accepted," he told this website.

"Questioning of the integrity of some of our members hurts the integrity of all of European politics," he said.

Human error

Details of the Zangilan trip first emerged in an investigation by Blankspot, a Stockholm-based online media, on 16 January.

The parliament also uploaded an itinerary following media questions.

Eroglu and Bogovič denied wrongdoing and blamed their initial non-declaration of Baku's hospitality on human error by their assistants.

The visit arose after Azerbaijan's EU ambassador contacted him last June to see a "smart village" in Zangilan, Bogovič told blankspot.se.

"During the discussions with the Azerbaijani counterparts we were focusing on the issues related to the revival of rural and mountainous areas and we did not discuss or comment the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia," Bogovič said.

Erogul and Bogovič also defended their actions in an email to Nienaß, seen by EUobserver.

"We paid for our own flights, did not accept presents of any sorts," they said, upon learning of his Rumra resignation.

"We even had an explicit agreement with the ambassador of Azerbaijan to the EU that we would not mention or touch upon the conflict with Armenia during our trip in any way," they added.

But for all their pledges of good faith, Nienaß said visits of this sort should in future be openly funded out of the EP's own pockets only.

"Trips to third countries always have to be paid fully by the members ... It should be clear, that we only work for the benefit of the European people," he said.

'Dissolve friendship groups'

Nienaß advocated the "dissolution of the friendship groups" between foreign capitals and MEPs as a way to "regain trust" with the EU public.

"We must also strengthen whistleblower rights," he said.

"It cannot be, that assistants who know of wrongdoing in their offices have to face sanctions if they speak up," Nienaß said.

It remains to be seen if his proposals catch the eye of parliament reformers in the wake of the still unfolding Qatargate affair.

But blankspot.se, the Swedish and German investigators, plan to shed more light on the Zangilan trip in upcoming articles on EUobserver, opening it up as a case study for debates on how existing parliament ethics codes work in day-to-day Brussels life.

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