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A few bad apples or a whole rotten barrel? Brussels fights corruption scandal

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As Belgian police launched a second wave of raids on the European Parliament, a stunned Brussels elite began grappling with an uncomfortable question at the heart of the Qatar bribery investigation: How far does the rot go?

So far, police investigations launched by Belgian prosecutor Michel Claise have landed four people in jail, including Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili, on charges of corruption, money laundering and involvement in a criminal organization.

After the initial shock of those arrests wore off, several Parliament officials told POLITICO that they believed the indictments would be limited to a “few people” who had gone astray by allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of euros in cash from the interests of Qatar.

But that theory was beginning to unravel on Monday night, when Belgian police carried out another series of raids on Parliament’s offices just as lawmakers were meeting in Strasbourg, one of two European Parliament sites, for their first meeting after news of the arrests broke on Friday. .

With 19 registered residences and offices, plus Parliament, six people arrested and sums of at least around a million euros recovered, some EU officials and activists said they believed more names would be included in the ever-growing roundup, and that the Qatar bribery scandal was symptomatic of a much deeper and more widespread problem of corruption not only in the European Parliament, but in all EU institutions.

In Parliament, lax oversight of members’ financial activities and the fact that states could contact them without even recording the meetings on a public record amounts to a recipe for corruption, these critics argued.

Beyond Parliament, they pointed to the revolving door of top officials leaving to serve private interests after a spell at the European Commission or Council as evidence that tighter oversight of the institutions is needed. Others invoked the legacy of the Jacques santer commission – who resigned en masse in 1998 – as proof that no EU institution is immune to illegal influence.

“The courts will determine who is guilty, but the truth is that it is not just Qatar, and it is not just the people who have been named who are involved” in foreign influence operations, Raphaël Glucksmann, a French lawmaker for the Socialists and Democrats, who heads a committee against foreign interference in Parliament, told POLITICO in Strasbourg.

Michiel van Hulten, a former lawmaker who now heads the EU office of Transparency International, said that while blatant corruption cases involving bags of cash were rare, “it is very likely that there are names in this scandal that we haven’t heard yet. There is undue influence on a scale that we have not seen before. You don’t need to involve bags of cash. It can involve travel to distant destinations paid for by foreign organizations, and in that sense there is a more general problem.

Adding to the problem was the fact that Parliament has no built-in protections for whistleblowers, despite having voted in favor of such protections for EU citizens, he added. In 1998, he was a whistleblower denouncing mismanagement in the Santer Commission, which precipitated the massive resignation of the EU executive.

Glucksmann also called for “extremely deep reforms” to a system that allows lawmakers to hold more than one job, leaves oversight of personal finances in the hands of a self-regulatory committee made up of lawmakers, and gives state actors access to lawmakers without having to record their encounters publicly.

Vice President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili | Jalal Morchidi/EFE via EPA

“If Parliament wants to get out of this, we will have to hit hard and undertake very deep reforms,” added Glucksmann, who previously named Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan as countries that have sought to influence parliament’s policy decisions.

To start tackling the problem, Glucksmann called for an ad hoc investigative committee to be set up in Parliament, while other left-wing and Green lawmakers called for reforms, including the appointment of an anti-corruption vice-president to replace Kaili, who was ousted. of the S&D. on Monday night and the creation of an ethics committee to oversee all the EU institutions.

glass half full

Others, however, were less convinced that the corruption investigation would yield new names, or that the facts revealed last Friday spoke to a broader problem in the EU. Asked about the scope of the bribery scandal, a senior parliament official who asked not to be named to discuss confidential deliberations said: “As serious as it is, it is a matter of individuals, of a few people who made very bad decisions. The investigation and arrests show that our systems and procedures have worked.”

Valérie Hayer, a French lawmaker from the centrist group Renew, made a similar note, saying that while she was deeply concerned about a “risk to our democracy” linked to foreign interference, she did not believe the scandal pointed to “widespread corruption.” in the EU “Unfortunately, there are bad apples,” she said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, criticized for her handling of COVID-19 vaccination deals with Pfizer, declined to answer questions about her vice president, Margaritis Schinas, relations with Qatar at a conference in press, which provoked the fury of the Brussels press.

The Greek commissioner represented the EU at the opening ceremony of the World Cup last month and has been criticized by MEPs for his tweets in recent months lavishing praise on Qatar’s labor reforms.

Vice President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

When asked about the Commission’s response to the Qatari corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament, and in particular Schinas’s stance, von der Leyen was silent on the Greek commissioner.

However, von der Leyen appeared to support the creation of an independent ethics body that could investigate wrongdoing across all EU bodies.

“These rules [on lobbying by state actors] they are the same in the three EU institutions,” said the senior Parliament official, referring to the European Commission, Parliament and the European Council, the round table of EU governments.

The split over how to tackle corruption shows how even in the face of what appears to be a blatant example of corruption, members of the Brussels establishment, made up of thousands of highly paid bureaucrats and elected officials, many of whom enjoy legal immunity as part from their jobs, they seek to protect themselves against scrutiny that could threaten income or derail careers.

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