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After Qatargate, can the EU Parliament clean up its act?

Ella Joyner Brussels
January 14, 2023

The EU legislature wants to tighten its rules in the wake of shocking corruption allegations dubbed Qatargate. The president's proposals aren't published yet, but the tussle over reform plans has already kicked off.

A handout image made available by the Belgium Police Judiciaire Federale on December 14, 2022, shows a combination of images showing several hundred thousand euros found in a hotel room.
Police found several hundred thousand euros in a Brussels hotel roomImage: AFP

One month after news of the European Parliament's biggest ever corruption scandal broke, "Qatargate" revelations continue to jolt Brussels.

This week, Belgian member Marie Arena resigned her post as head of the human rights sub-committee after admitting to failing to disclose a paid-for trip to the gulf state. Qatar stands accused of (and denies) bribing lawmakers to influence EU political decisions. Arena pointed out that unlike a number of colleagues, she has not been implicated in Belgian authorities' investigations; hers was an administrative error. 

Several people with links to the legislature or NGOs were detained after December 9 raids in the EU capital, when Belgian police seized nearly €1.5 million (roughly $1.6 million). Some were released soon after. Four suspects, including disgraced former parliamentary Vice President Eva Kaili of Greece, were charged a few days later. Kaili is accused of corruption, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering.

The next European Parliament plenary begins in Strasbourg on Monday, and proceedings to strip four lawmakers of their immunity to facilitate investigations are expected to get under way. On Wednesday comes the vote to replace Kaili, who was sacked in December.

Life after Qatargate

With MEPs now over the initial shock of learning that colleagues allegedly had thousands of euros in ill-gotten cash stashed throughout the EU capital, concrete reform plans to avoid a repeat are starting to take shape. A lot is at stake: This is a legitimacy crisis of unprecedented scale for the institution, coming just a year and a half before European elections.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola laid out a 14-point plan to the heads of the legislature's political groups on Thursday behind closed doors. "Integrity. Independence. Accountability," the Maltese center-right politician tweeted. "We will move ahead fast."

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola has developed reform ideas after QatargateImage: Benoit Doppagne/BELGA/dpa/picture alliance

The proposals include a new "cooling-off" period for former members of the European Parliament to stop using their connections and access for lobbying. Another measure is to ban unofficial friendship groups between lawmakers and third countries, given that there are already official delegations to various non-EU nations. Rules on the declaration of meetings with lobbyists would also get tighter under Metsola's plan, with all MEPs having to publish such appointments rather than just more senior ones who lead committees or policy files.

Metsola is due to present her proposals in Strasbourg on Monday, according to her spokesperson. A number of groups, including the center-left Socialists and Democrats — who are at the center of the probe and may conduct an internal inquiry among their own ranks — the Greens and the Left have already said they don't go far enough.

Latest in a string of scandals

When such revelations emerge in other parliaments, no one calls for the institution to be torn down, German Green MEP Daniel Freund, told DW.

"But a corruption scandal in the European Parliament breaks and immediately you have [British pro-Brexit hard-liner politician] Nigel Farage and [euroskeptic Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban saying 'they're all corrupt and parliament should be abolished,'" he said.

His first reaction to Qatargate was frustration, he admits, but not exactly shock. There have been a number of corruption scandals in the roughly 40 years since the parliament became the EU's only directly elected body — such as the 2011 "cash-for-amendments" affair, when MEPs were busted by undercover journalists posing as lobbyists seeking legislative tweaks.

More minor infractions of internal parliamentary rules often go unpunished, he noted. "In the last 10 years there have been 24 cases where the code of conduct for members was broken, and you know, in 24 cases there was no sanction."

For Freund, the revelations surrounding Qatargate are part of a wider "culture of impunity." A lot of MEPs are hustling to make sure they correctly reported paid-for foreign trips made in recent years, he said. 

Moreover, as Freund points out, a majority in the European Parliament has repeatedly voted against transparency reforms in the past. Some MEPs, mainly right-wing, warn of introducing burdensome bureaucratic hurdles that would put off potential candidates. Freund doesn't buy this: "I mean, sorry, the idea that someone wouldn't run for the European Parliament because they have to fill out a few forms? That's a bogus argument."

MEPs 'in it for the money'?

One often-criticized aspect of parliamentary life is the expenses lump sum allowance of close to €5,000 per month, on top of a generous annual salary. MEPs don't need to disclose how this is spent, something advocacy group Transparency International's EU branch believe must change.

"It attracts people to serve as members of the European Parliament, the ones who are in it for the money basically, and they are open to being bribed," Shari Hinds, a policy assistant with the branch, told DW.

Qatargate has thrown a spotlight on a range of issues in the European Parliament, Hinds explains. One issue is lax rules on meetings between parliamentarians and NGOs that have not signed up to the EU Transparency Register. Any entities — be they lobbies or interest groups — that aren't on this list shouldn't be able to meet with lawmakers, Hinds told DW. This is already the case for the European Commission. Another is on whistle-blowing protections, which Hinds says are still too weak for those within the parliament who may wish to report wrongdoing.

For Transparency International, Metsola's proposals are good but still rely regrettably on "a system of self-enforcement." Freund highlights the same issue, calling for an external, independent body to enforce rules.

So is Qatargate a potential turning point for the parliament? After the "cash-for-amendments" scandal, rules were tightened, Freund says. Right now, many members appear keen to clean up its international reputation as quickly as possible.

The question is whether that will is still as strong when proposed reforms come to the vote in the months to come. "I hope the majorities will be there," Freund says. "If you ask me today, are you sure it will all happen? No, I'm not sure."

Edited by: Rob Mudge