Corruption in the European Parliament: Could better transparency rules have prevented the Kaili case?
After EP Vice-President Eva Kaili was arrested last Friday on suspicion of corruption, money laundering and third country influence peddling, calls for a tightening of EU ethics rules are growing louder. Could the Kaili case have been prevented by stronger rules? The most important facts at a glance:
What are the current rules on MEPs’ conduct and how are they enforced?
Prohibition of corruption: By signing the Code of Conduct, MEPs undertake at the beginning of their mandate not to vote in the interest of another person or entity. Nor may they accept any direct or indirect financial benefit or consideration for influencing decisions at EU level.
Side activities: According to the Code of Conduct, MEPs may in principle engage in paid activities outside their mandate, sit as a member of external bodies or own shares in companies. However, this may only be done if the side activities or financial interests do not constitute a conflict of interests that could “improperly influence the performance of his or her duties as a Member”. The exercise of paid lobbying directly related to the decision-making processes in the EU is thus prohibited.
To ensure that the existence of a possible conflict of interests can also be checked, all side activities and income, including their amount, must be declared in a public declaration of MEPs’ financial interests. These are published on the Parliament’s website. There is no thorough control on the part of the Parliament over the correctness and completeness of the information given in the declarations, despite repeated demands by a majority of MEPs. It is possible, and unfortunately the case, to list “consultancy” as a side activity, without specifying for whom and on what subject.
Gifts: The Code of Conduct also stipulates that MEPs may not accept gifts worth more than €150. Any gifts must be handed over to the Parliament’s President and then kept by the administration. The Parliament keeps a public list of these. Reimbursement of travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses may be accepted if MEPs attend an organized event at the invitation of a third party in order to fulfill their mandate.
Contacts with stakeholders: According to the Rules of Procedure, MEPs must publish all lobby meetings related to a report for which they are responsible as rapporteur, shadow rapporteur or committee chair on Parliament’s website. While the publication obligation for committee chairpersons applies in principle to all lobby meetings, there is no comparable obligation for the President, Vice-Presidents or group chairpersons. Third countries do not currently count as lobbyists, which is why meetings with them are not subject to the publication obligation.
Which rules urgently need tightening?
Independent ethics body: The monitoring of the above-mentioned rules is currently the responsibility of an advisory committee consisting of five MEPs, which has no enforcement powers. In concrete terms, this leads to little or no monitoring of existing rules. In recent years, for example, apart from one oral reprimand, a financial sanction has only been imposed on an MEP in one case, although at least 24 violations of the Code of Conduct are known.
Transparency about influence from third countries: Third countries demonstrably try to influence EU policy. Therefore, they should fall under the general definition of “interest representatives” in the future. This means that not only lobbyists in the classical sense, but also third countries would have to register in the lobby register and provide precise information about their lobbying activities and expenditures. Meetings of MEPs, EU Commissioners and Commission Directors-General with representatives of third countries would have to be made public and would be subject to prior registration.
Transparency on MEPs’ assets: Currently, MEPs only have to declare their current income from side activities and certain shareholdings in the declaration of financial interests. However, the total assets of MEPs should also be made transparent at least at the beginning and at the end of the mandate. Only in this way can it be verified whether, in addition to the income declared in the declaration, further payments to MEPs have taken place in the course of the mandate.
What influence would better rules have on the fight against corruption?
Should the accusations against Eva Kaili be substantiated, they would not only be a violation of the European Parliament’s rules of conduct, but also of criminal law. The objection that there is therefore no need to amend the rules of conduct, however, falls short of the mark. Above all, there are massive deficits in the control and enforcement of the current rules. If a culture of impunity for violations of the Code of Conduct spreads in the EU institutions, this will inevitably have an impact on the behavior of MEPs in the European Parliament. If, on the other hand, the existing rules were consistently enforced, possible misconduct would be detected even earlier – possibly even before it ends up in the area of criminal law.
In addition, more transparency would also make it much easier to come to terms with and clarify possible criminal offenses committed by elected representatives. It would be clear which third countries spend how much money on their lobbying in Brussels and with which MEPs and Commission staff they have met. Meetings in secret would not be possible. Patterns of meetings would be visible.
Daniel Freund, Co-Chair of the Anti-Corruption Intergroup, comments:
“The influence of third parties on EU policy must be transparent. We need mandatory disclosure of meetings with lobbyists – whether they have taken place with business, civil society or third countries, at least for all key office holders in the European Parliament. The influence of lobbyists on EU policy must be traceable. While this would not have prevented a case like Kaili, it would help expose lobbyist networks and create a culture that makes a repeat less likely.”