If the Qatargate corruption scandal in the European Parliament has boosted the career of any of its members, that person may well be Marc Angel. The Luxembourgian member of the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) took over the post of disgraced former Vice President Eva Kaili of Greece on Wednesday. She was sacked last month, and stands accused of corruption, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering.
Qatar is suspected of bribing lawmakers to influence EU political decisions, which the country has denied. Several people with links to the EU legislature were detained after December 9 raids in Brussels, when Belgian police seized nearly €1.5 million (roughly $1.6 million). Some were released soon after. Four suspects, including Kaili, were charged.
Angel stood up briefly to welcome the results of the vote that appointed him as one of the legislature's 14 vice presidents. His colleagues applauded; Angel motioned for them to wrap it quickly.
The vice president role is a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things. Vice presidents are in charge of setting down rules for parliament's "smooth functioning," according to the legislature's website. The vices draw up a preliminary draft budget and decide on administrative, staff and organizational matters. The president can also delegate special duties to vices.
Don't wait for Angel to save the EU Parliament
In other words, Angel isn't necessarily going to spearhead a clean-up in the parliament. That task falls mainly to President Roberta Metsola of the center-right European People's Party group, who has already set out a 14-point reform plan to stop a repeat showing of Qatargate.
"There will be no impunity, there will be no sweeping under the carpet, and there will be no business as usual," Metsola said last December when promising "wide-ranging reforms," adding she would "lead this work personally."
Nonetheless, Alberto Alemanno, founder of advocacy group the Good Lobby, said the selection of Angel represented a "missed opportunity" for the European Parliament to show it was serious about changing things. "[Angel] has no track record on transparency and integrity issues," the professor at HEC Paris business school noted. Angel is currently vice-chair on the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. He also sits on other committees and delegations, none with a clear link to the issues brought up by Qatargate.
The 59-year-old hails from the same political group as Kaili, S&D, the second largest in the 705-seat legislature. Several of its members, albeit suspended, and former members are key suspects in Qatargate investigations, and it has pledged to conduct an internal inquiry that has not yet begun.
Business as usual?
In the wake of the biggest corruption scandal to ever hit the parliament, the reaction has been lackluster so far, according to Alemanno. "The institutional response by the European Parliament, as well as by the Commission, suggests that EU leaders are reticent in publicly acknowledging the systemic failure of the EU ethics regime, and of their own political parties in selecting and monitoring existing and former MEPs," Alemanno told DW.
Asked why it was acceptable for the group to hold onto the spot despite the serious allegations against its members (several now suspended), S&D president Iratxe Garcia Perez pointed to a power-sharing deal struck between the three largest parliamentary groups following the 2019 European elections. "We think we should carry on with that agreement," Garcia told reporters in Strasbourg, indicating that the center-right European People's Party and centrist Renew Europe also wanted to stick to it.
Besides the S&D, only the Greens and the far-right ID group nominated candidates for Wednesday's vote.
Metsola's reform proposals — which include a ban on parliamentary "friendship groups" with third countries and a mandatory cooling-off period for former members who might use their access for lobbying — don't go far enough for Alemanno. The S&D, Greens and the Left group all welcomed the proposals, but also called for more ambition.
EU Parliament understimating severity, analysts warn
Like Alemanno, analyst Camino Mortera of the Centre for European Reform, is worried that the European Parliament is underestimating the extent of reform needed. "I don't think that the parliament itself has realized that by not reforming, by not taking this chance to do something significant against these kind of behaviors, they are opening themselves up to more criticism," Mortera told DW.
In fact, the parliament risks becoming irrelevant or even counterproductive in its efforts to call out corruption or rule-of-law infringements within the EU and worldwide, she said.
Former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, a key Qatargate suspect, has agreed to cooperate with investigators, Belgian authorities announced on Tuesday. Panzeri committed to sharing information about the parties involved and the crimes allegedly commited in the case, which could increase the list of suspects.
As the only directly elected EU institution, the parliament has petitioned the other EU institutions — the European Commission and the European Council, which is composed of EU leaders — for greater powers over the years with some degree of success. However, increased responsibility has not been matched with increased accountability, Mortera warns.
Looking ahead to the European elections in 2024, the European Parliament, which has long been calling to have a bigger role in the appointment of top European Commission officials, for example, may find its case for more power has weakened, Mortera said.
"Unfortunately, this is going to be one of the biggest stories, if not the biggest story that your average Joe has heard of out of the the European Parliament," she said.
"I think it's going to be very detrimental for engagement and citizen participation in the European elections."
Edited by: Nicole Goebel