EU corruption scandal exposes lobbying loopholes
Looking behind the curtain of lobbying in the EU capital and examining why the status quo may have produced the corruption scandal rocking Brussels.
The political institutions of the European Union are in turmoil with a cash-for-favours corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament with the potential to spread.
Former European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili is one of four people in detention, charged by Belgian prosecutors with “participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption.”
She has already been booted out of her political parties and affiliations and stripped of her vice presidency, accused of accepting bribes from Qatar.
Gleaming speeches about the Gulf state in the European Parliament, voting in favour of files related to Qatar in committees on which she didn’t sit, and attending numerous unregistered events in the country are the alleged links between Kaili and Doha.
In a statement published online, the Mission of Qatar to the EU called the allegations “baseless and gravely misinformed.”
While official details of the scope and depth of the police investigation in Belgium remain scant, the activities of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and other EU bodies will now come under increased scrutiny.
EU experts are questioning whether the existing anti-corruption measures in place suffice.
“When there is highly complex and entrenched policymaking like there is in the EU, it becomes untransparent, and then it makes it easier to buy influence,” Jacob Kirkegaard from the German Marshall Fund told DW News. “You can buy a vice president of the European Parliament for €600k! Are they really that cheap?”
“This is clearly a woman who wasn’t afraid of being caught. It indicates that whatever measures and processes the European Parliament has, have no deterrent effect,” he said. “Even stupid people, if they were afraid, wouldn’t do it.”
So what measures are in place at the EU?
It has a database in which NGOs, lobby groups, consultants, charities, and other organizations wanting to influence lawmaking must register.
All those listed in the Transparency Register are required to declare their budgets and any donations above €10,000 (ca. $10,545) for NGOs.
Significantly, Fighting Impunity, the NGO at the heart of the current corruption scandal, is not on the register.
Its president, former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, is also in detention. And Eva Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi works there too. Furthermore, Fighting Impunity shares an office with the Italian non-profit No Peace Without Justice, whose director was also arrested in this case.
“With the loopholes in the system, this was bound to happen,” Paul Varakas, president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), which helps lobbyists apply to the Transparency Register, told DW.
In 2021, the European Parliament refused to apply the principle of “strict conditionality” attached to the Transparency Register, which would have forced them only to meet with registered lobbyists.
Senior officials in the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, are already bound to this principle and only allowed to meet with lobbyists listed on the register.
But the MEPS argued that it would infringe on their “freedom of mandate” and rejected moves to force them to disclose all their meetings.
“That’s how they [Fighting Impunity] were doing it,” said Varakas. “You had an NGO influencing decision-making without having to disclose anything. They were invited by an MEP who didn’t have to declare. It was simple for them.”
SEAP and other organizations are now saying that while mandatory registration (and disclosure requirements attached to it) might be burdensome for smaller actors, such as NGOs, the pressure on the European Parliament to fall in line with the “conditionality principle” will be immense.
In the wake of the scandal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has repeated a call for an ethics body to be set up that would oversee all EU institutions.
“We have one with very clear rules internally in the European Commission and I think it is time to discuss where we could establish this overall for all EU institutions,” she said at a press conference in Brussels on Monday.
Diplomatic immunity for MEPs
MEPs also enjoy diplomatic immunity to carry out their political work without fear of prosecution.
According to a Protocol on privileges and immunities of the EU, they cannot “be subject to any form of inquiry, detention or legal proceedings in respect of opinions expressed or votes cast by them in the performance of their duties.”
Immunity is not valid, however, “when a Member is found in the act of committing an offence and shall not prevent the European Parliament from exercising its right to waive the immunity of one of its Members.”
If necessary, MEPs have the right to request their immunity is upheld, but the press office of the European Parliament said no request of that nature had been made by Eva Kaili.
Prosecuting judges in Belgium have also not asked for the immunity to be lifted.
“If there is no request for immunity to be withdrawn then that suggests that the judge has concluded that the criteria have been met for immunity to no longer apply,” said European Parliament spokesperson Jaume Duch in Strasbourg.
In the past, immunity requests have been made in regard to extradition requests. But because the crimes are alleged to have been committed in Belgium, extradition would not apply in this case.