The EU is only now considering enacting lobbying-related guardrails that should have been put in place a long time ago
In a corruption scandal that strikes at the heart of European Union governance, a vice-president of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, of Greece, has been stripped of her responsibilities by the EU Parliament, had her assets frozen, and has been charged after police alleged to have found “bags of cash” at her residence.
There also was a raid on the home of a Belgian MEP, Marc Tarabella, the vice-chair of the EU’s delegation for relations with the Arab peninsula. Belgian authorities paid another no-knock visit to the home of an assistant to yet another MEP. Earlier this week, authorities searched the EU Parliament offices like it was a common crime scene, reportedly seizing data. So far, €1.5 million has been seized from private homes, with the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office accusing the four people arrested and charged with “participation in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption.” It turns out that the officials alleged to have been involved are accused of also lobbying for visa-free EU-Qatar travel and whitewashing Qatar’s labor rights record.
For an institution like the European Union, which constantly preaches to other countries about how to clean up their act, you’d think they’d have some strong guardrails in place to prevent the kind of things that these charges allege. That isn’t the case. “The allegations are of utmost concern, very serious,” said an uncharacteristically measured European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She proposed an independent ethics body to set rules for EU institutions “where there are very clear rules,” adding that it “would be a big step forward.” You mean that didn’t already exist? Why not?
Those who believe that Western democratic institutions practice what they constantly preach might be surprised to learn that the lack of checks and balances to prevent corruption at home is actually pretty staggering. Earlier this year, for example, three US congressional representatives introduced bipartisan legislation to close loopholes allowing foreign funding of think tanks, government officials, and elections. “Right now, foreign governments are able to secretly fund think tanks to push their own agendas, hire former public officials and military officers to lobby for their interests, and have their agents raise millions of dollars for political campaigns,” explained bill sponsor, Congressman Jared Golden.
It’s almost like systemic corruption is just an open secret that benefits from an omertà as very few officials actually seem to want to acknowledge or address the issue.
When von der Leyen had the opportunity to address the matter with the Brussels press corps on Monday, she stonewalled journalists much to their frustration, which they weren’t shy about expressing on Twitter. According to Politico, one journalist even shouted at von der Leyen as she was leaving, “You didn’t answer a single one of the questions.” It’s not exactly the kind of behavior you might expect from someone who routinely speaks of holding others accountable for corruption, a lack of transparency, and other undemocratic practices.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola portrayed the scandal as something happening to the EU, rather than a phenomenon for which it’s actually responsible or accountable through its systemic practices at worst or lack of lobbying-related safeguards at best. “Make no mistake: the European Parliament, dear colleagues, is under attack. European democracy is under attack. And our way of open free democratic societies are under attack,” Metsola said.
Metsola’s comments echo mainstream press reports referring to a “Qatar corruption” scandal at the EU, but it should be considered first and foremost a European Union corruption problem. Shifting blame onto Qatar lets the EU off the hook and gives the false impression that the troubles begin and end with a single country. Just how many other countries could be enjoying similar “lobbying arrangements” with folks in positions of political power and influence in Brussels?
Transparency International suggests that this kind of thing is actually pretty commonplace. “This is not an isolated incident. Over many decades, the Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) ethics oversight,” said the NGO’s director, Michiel van Hulten.
Another problem with this fiasco for the EU is that it harms its well-crafted messaging that constantly drives home two points. The first point is how virtuous and righteous Europe wants people to believe it is. This scandal shines a spotlight on a dirty issue in a dark corner that no one ever evokes, and ultimately tarnishes their halo, which they’re constantly brandishing. The second point that the EU always promotes and which this all hinders – is how Russia is responsible for all of the EU’s self-inflicted wounds because the EU is so innocent and infinitely competent and trustworthy with absolutely no hidden or special interests.
Corruption in the EU seems to be relative, and open to use as a bargaining chip or to dial up or down pressure. The bloc recently blocked funds to Hungary under the pretext that the country’s institutions are so flimsy that the cash could be used to fuel corruption. But when Hungary agreed to lift its veto of more funding for Ukraine, then suddenly the funding became unblocked, and corruption concerns vanished.
If all of this is just the visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to shady activities in the EU, then how big is the actual iceberg? And is anyone interested in actually digging any deeper to find out?
Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist, and host of independently produced talk-shows in French and English.
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