For once, the European Parliament will not be the sideshow.
A corruption scandal has inflamed Parliament just as EU leaders meet on Thursday for one of their regular summits. And the explosive revelations (bags of cash, possible influence peddling involving Qatar and Morocco) have reversed the script.
Normally, when the EU leaders meet, the president of the Parliament attends and hardly anyone notices. The onset is usually brief. The press conference is poorly attended.
Not this time.
Parliament Speaker Roberta Metsola will arrive at the European Council on Thursday morning before a sea of cameras, as the media continue to chronicle the accusations that swarm around the popularly elected EU body. She must update the EU’s 27 national leaders on the worrying details that have caused at least one MEP to be arrested on suspicion of corruption.
But for most EU leaders, it’s a case of “not my problem.”
“Really, this is a problem for Parliament,” said a European Council official. “We expect to receive a report from Metsola, but nothing more.”
The European Council’s instinct to try to dodge allegations of embezzlement within the EU could backfire and rack up problems for the EU in the long run.
“The potential reputational damage here can be immense,” Petros Fassoulas, secretary general of the pro-EU organization International European Movement, told POLITICO. “Most people do not distinguish between one institution or another. The problem is that once you put the word corruption next to any European institution, people automatically associate the EU with the act of corruption.”
In the distance looms the 2024 European elections, the once-every-five-year exercise that is the closest the EU has to a bloc-wide election.
European elections have traditionally been a place for anti-EU forces to make their voices heard. In fact, some of the EU’s biggest critics (British Nigel Farage and French Marine Le Pen come to mind) have turned heads in the European Parliament before moving home to further spread their Eurosceptic message.
Now there are fears that the Qatar scandal, which has rocked Parliament, could further discredit the institution.
“This scandal risks falling squarely into the hands of anti-democratic and anti-European forces,” Fassoulas said. “It is vital that the EU gets ahead of this, especially in light of the 2024 European elections.”
Other than Metsola’s scheduled briefing to EU leaders on Thursday morning, there are no further discussions of the scandal on the official agenda for Thursday’s meeting. A diplomat said the leaders’ response may depend on what she has to say.
EU leaders also have many other issues to discuss.
Deep divisions have emerged over the European Commission’s plan to counter US subsidy packages it fears are attracting investment outside Europe, countries still can’t agree on how (and if) to cap the prices of gasoline, and Romania and Bulgaria remain outraged that they have not been allowed to enter the Schengen free movement area.
In addition, there were last-minute hiccups in a multi-tiered deal to unlock 18 billion euros in aid for Ukraine and finalize a minimum corporate tax rate, after Poland blocked the proposal on Wednesday night.
But in reality, the harsh attention being shed on the EU’s relationship with Qatar could be uncomfortable for many countries, especially when calls come to reassess the lucrative aviation deals with Doha.
Several EU members have also increased their reliance on the Gulf state for energy as they seek to stop using Russian gas. In recent weeks, the German companies reached a 15-year agreement to buy liquefied natural gas from Qatar. And on Wednesday, Hungary announced that energy group MVM would start talks with QatarEnergy on the purchase of LNG gas.
Asked whether allegations about the possible infiltration of influence money in parliament should cause the EU to reassess other business interests with Qatar, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz evaded the question on Wednesday, focusing on the specifics of the Belgian case in grade.
“What needs to be reviewed is what accusations are going to be made against those who now face the accusation of having been bribed, and of course this also applies to those who were on the other side, that is, those who bribed” , said. reporters in Brussels.
Scholz’s finance minister, Robert Habeck, argued explicitly on Tuesday night that the discoveries underway should not upset his country’s gas purchase plans.
“These are two different things,” Habeck said.
However, not all EU leaders want to sidestep the issue.
Arriving at an EU summit with Southeast Asian countries on Wednesday, Irish leader Micheál Martin said the public was “shocked” by what had happened, calling for the establishment of an EU-wide body to monitor the institutions, including Parliament.
“The whole idea of an oversight body is required to ensure compliance and adherence to ethics,” he said. “Obviously, due process must be carried out, but nonetheless, people must have confidence in the institutions of the European Union, and in particular in the Parliament of the European Union, because it has increased its powers over the years. years”.
Other leaders echoed a view many members of parliament took this week: that the corruption allegations do not point to a systemic problem, just a few bad apples. Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas admitted that the revelations were damaging “not only the European Union but also European politicians.”
“I must confirm and say that we are not all like that,” he added, noting that having these cases in public can help prevent them in the future.