One year after Qatargate: Corruption Risk Remains
This Saturday (December 9th) marks the first anniversary of the “Qatargate” corruption scandal. Twelve months ago, the Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili (S&D) was arrested in Brussels. Together with at least three accomplices, she is alleged to have accepted millions in bribes from Qatar and other third countries in order to manipulate the work and legislation of the European Parliament. After the scandal came to light, several proceedings were initiated in the European Parliament. President Roberta Metsola (EPP) presented a 14-point plan. A special committee was appointed to investigate the events.
One year on, little remains of the “clean-up” announced at the time. Some important reforms have been watered down, gutted or not even initiated. A real, internal investigation into whether the bribery from third countries was successful did not actually take place. Nevertheless, we were able to push through some improvements of the anti-corruption rules and lobby control. The most important points at a glance:
Three successful measures against corruption:
- – MEPs must now also disclose meetings with representatives of third countries
- – What was previously voluntary is now mandatory: MEPs must now publish all meetings with interest representatives. This also includes meetings of their assistants
- – In the future, events with interest representatives may only take place within the European Parliament, if the representatives are registered in the lobby register.
Measures that have been rejected, watered down or still not enforced:
- – A majority of the European Parliament had spoken out in favor of MEPs declaring their assets in order to be able to uncover conspicuous movements of assets in future. This should make it more difficult to acquire luxury goods through dubious income. However, this has been postponed by the Bureau of the European Parliament until after the elections, and there are no plans for proper monitoring.
- – There is still no effective and independent control of the existing (good) lobbying rules in the European Parliament. Negotiations on an ethics body were only started very late by the EU Commission. Their attitude in the negotiations has so far been less than constructive. The Commission’s proposal misses the point. We need independent control instead of a discussion about standardised rules.
- – There is still no ban on MEPs accepting money from lobbying organisations. Currently, MPs do not even have to declare from whom exactly they accept money. Christian Democrats, right-wingers and liberals have rejected our amendments in favour of such a ban.
The Bureau of the European Parliament: where lobbying rules are being delayed and prevented
The Bureau of the European Parliament (14 Vice-Presidents and President Roberta Metsola) is responsible for adopting and implementing numerous anti-corruption rules. The Bureau is so powerful that it can change or simply ignore majority decisions made by the Parliament. An alliance of right-wingers and conservatives has contributed, for example, to the weakening of whistleblower protection and the fact that the obligation to declare assets will only take effect in the next legislature.
A committee of inquiry that wasn’t one: ING2
Numerous MEPs had called for a committee of inquiry after the scale of Qatargate became known. Instead, only an extension of the mandate for the existing Committee against Influence from Third Countries (ING2) was granted. From then on, this committee was to deal with the investigation of Qatargate. However, the main thing that happened here was nothing. After just one meeting, a draft final report was presented. No witnesses were called, no documents were requested or inspected. Whether and how exactly parliamentary decisions were influenced remains unclear.
Daniel Freund, Chair of the Intergroup Anti-Corruption in the European Parliament (Greens), commented
“To date, the European Parliament has not implemented any measures that could prevent a second ‘Qatargate’. There have been improvements in the area of lobbying transparency. However, these are not enough to curb the risk of bribery attempts from third countries. Whenever truly effective measures have been introduced, they have been massively watered down, especially by the Conservatives. Significant corruption risks remain. We still do not know whether Qatar has successfully manipulated decisions of the European Parliament. Recent reports suggest that Qatar’s influence has affected many more areas than previously assumed. A key weakness in making transparency rules more effective is the lack of independent control. An agreement on an independent ethics body would be a decisive signal ahead of the European elections.”
What happened to the 14-point plan
- Cooling-off period for MEPs: The Bureau decided for the first time to introduce a cooling-off period for MEPs, meaning that MEPs are not allowed to discuss politics with current MEPs for the first 6 months after leaving Parliament. But the Bureau decided with a narrow conservative-right-wing-liberal majority in favour of 6 months, instead of 6 to 24 months depending on the length of the previous time in Parliament. We as Greens wanted and still want up to 24 months cooling-off period, as long as the parliament pays transitional allowances.
- Integrity information summarised on the EP homepage: The rules have been made more easily accessible in one place as planned. But what would be even more important in a situation like Qatargate: all speeches, all votes, all amendments by individual MEPs could be easily found in one place instead of being linked by date and by parliamentary decision as is the case now.
- No lobby event without registration: these rules have been significantly improved. Most loopholes have been removed. What is still being negotiated: For events organised by individual MEPs, does the administration with a lot of staff and greater neutrality or the parliamentary groups with few staff and potential partisanship check compliance with the rules?
- Mandatory disclosure of lobby meetings: A real success, from being limited to only rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs, the rule for mandatory disclosure of lobby meetings has been extended to all parliamentary meetings of all MEPs. In addition to meetings with lobbyists, meetings with non-EU states (third countries) must now also be published.
- Ban on “friendship groups” with third countries: The use of parliamentary resources should be reserved for official EP delegations.However, informal groups of MEPs with financial support from third countries such as Azerbaijan are not completely ruled out. There is now a threat of sanctions for violating the transparency rules, which have often been ignored to date.
- Access logbook for all EP visitors: Consistent records of which MEPs bring which lobbyists into the House as visitors can be very helpful information. However, because this is primarily about the actions of the administration, there is little transparency as to how much progress has been made.
- Adjust access rights for former MEPs: Has been adjusted. Former MEPs no longer have an automatic right of access to the European Parliament for 6 months.
- Require MEPs to resolve conflicts of interest: Rapporteurs or shadow rapporteurs for an EU law must check more clearly for each role whether they have conflicts of interest. They can still declare instead of resolving conflicts.
- Declarations of interests by MEPs with more details: Additional income must finally be declared down to the last euro and cent, but only after a threshold of 5000 euros up to which nothing has to be declared. Clients of lawyers or consultants still do not have to be declared because our amendments to this effect were rejected.
- Stronger protection of whistleblowers in the EP: We were able to ensure that anonymous whistleblowers are also protected when they are discovered and do not have to fulfil any abusive additional requirements, except to believe that what they report is true. However, whistleblowers are still not allowed to turn to the press legally and have no strong guarantee of economic protection in the event of dismissal.
- Strengthening the Ethics Committee in the EP: There was a cross-party agreement among the group negotiators in favour of 3 external members in addition to the existing 5 MEPs on the committee that investigates breaches of the rules of conduct. However, this was rejected in plenary by the Christian Democrats, the far right and the Liberals, meaning that no external members will join the EP Ethics Committee after all. The EP Ethics Committee, which now consists of 8 MEPs, is authorised to investigate proactively. It remains to be seen whether this will be utilised.
- Continue human rights work: irrelevant for Qatargate
- Liaising with national anti-corruption institutions: Unclear objective. There is already no clear intention to work more effectively with the EU institutions against corruption, OLAF and EPPO, or to honour the voluntary commitments for independent monitoring by GRECO, the anti-corruption experts of the Council of Europe.
- Extend possible sanctions: It is now actually sanctionable if MEPs breach their duty to disclose lobby meetings, for example. However, as long as these rules of conduct are not monitored independently, it is unlikely that such (financial) sanctions will actually be imposed.
To date, the European Parliament has not implemented any measures that could prevent a second 'Qatargate'.