The Qatar scandal shows how the EU has a corruption problem

POLITICO – The Qatar “corruption” scandal has unveiled the inconvenient truth that money does buy influence in the EU.

Here’s what can be done about it.

Belgium on December 9, 2022 detained four people including a former MEP as part of a probe into suspected corruption by “a Gulf country” at the EU parliament | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Whatever its final outcome, the Qatar “corruption” scandal has unveiled an inconvenient, and for most Europeans already obvious, truth. Money does buy influence in the EU.

Today’s outrage, in which a current MEP and a former MEP are reportedly accused by the Belgian police of participating in illicit lobbying activities on behalf of Qatar, is just the latest in a series of influence scandals to ripple through the EU capital.

Before Qatargate, there were revolving door cases of former members of the Commission such as José Manuel Barroso and Neelie Kroes, MEPs such as Sharon Bowles and Holger Krahmer, or staff members such as Adam Farkas and Aura Salla. While none of these episodes come close to the allegations being made today, they did in their times put the spotlight on how the current EU ethics oversight system falls short of reducing the risk of unethical behavior.

This week’s revelation also highlights another uncomfortable fact: The weakest link in the EU’s integrity system is the European Parliament, simply because of its lax rules and irregular enforcement.

To begin with, members of the Parliament are allowed to have side jobs (one-quarter of the bloc’s 705 MEPs declared to do so), and their conduct remains accountable only to their colleagues. Given the proportion of MEPs taking advantage of this lenience, it’s no surprise that even the few investigations that are carried out result in ethical violations going unpunished

Then there’s the fact that MEPs are not required to declare all their meetings. Whistleblowing is also de facto discouraged, given that parliamentary assistants who aren’t trusted by their MEP won’t get much work.

Together, the Parliament’s ethical insouciance has produced a culture of impunity that doesn’t just harm EU citizens’ trust in democratic institutions, but also undermines the bloc’s interests as it results in behavior that is in opposition to its stated values during a time of unprecedented geopolitical realignment.  

All this is why the Parliament must harness this latest integrity scandal into an effort at real reform. Rather than once again limiting themselves to bashing the political party directly involved in the current scandal, the EU’s political leaders must immediately announce a major rehaul of the bloc’s ethics and lobbying system.  

Here are four reforms that would be a good start.

First, the EU institutions should establish a common, independent ethics authority, endowed with sufficient resources, investigation and sanction capacities. This is what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged when entering office but failed to follow through on. Moreover, the proposal put forward by the European Parliament has been severely criticized by the EU Commission’s legal service, which took instead a very cautionary yet largely unfounded stance.  

Second, the rules in force on transparency, conflicts of interest and revolving doors in the European institutions (in particular the codes of conduct of the institutions) must be strengthened by imposing reporting obligations for all members of the European Parliament. While the Parliament’s ruling Bureau has long opposed such an obligation in the name of the freedom of their electoral mandate, MEPs must now accept to report all their meetings as an opportunity to demonstrate their actual freedom from special interests.

Third, lobbying from third countries — be it by embassies or third parties — must also be published in the EU Transparency Register. Right now, governments are exempted from the EU’s already meager transparency rules. Likewise, meetings with representatives of third countries should be disclosed by all EU institutions, including by individual MEPs. 

Fourth, the EU Transparency Register must become mandatory through the adoption of a legislative act — as opposed to a mere inter-institutional agreement — and be strengthened by additional resources. Ultimately, we need a clear commitment from all institutions to only accept meetings with registered lobbyists and to publish all lobby meetings on a central website that is linked to the common EU transparency register.

The scandal taking place is an ugly one. Its very ugliness should motivate the EU’s political leaders to finally make things right.

Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris and founder of The Good Lobby, a non-profit committed to equalize access to power.