European Parliament bribery scandal puts spotlight on dark underbelly of EU institutions

Handful MEPs cause long-term, widespread damage


December 17, 2022

/ By / Brussels

European Parliament bribery scandal puts spotlight on dark underbelly of EU institutions

The European Parliament is at the centre of a spreading corruption scandal

Alleged bribery scandal that has rocked the institutions of the European Union, notably the European Parliament, is likely to cause widespread and long-term damage to all the institutions and sheds light on need for urgent reforms to bring in real accountability and transparency in the EU.

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The European Parliament is considered a cornerstone of European democracy and is meant to play the role of the sole pan-EU, democratically-elected body to represent the people of the EU and keep a check on the bureaucrats and their opaque ways of working that is often considered as extremely meddlesome and even bizarre in terms of the number of rules that now apply to everyday life of a common person in the EU.

With its 705 Members of European Parliament (MEPs), who are elected directly from the various countries that form the Union, the EP is a very powerful part of the triumvirate that governs 450 milllion people in 27 nations of the Union.

The Parliament acts as a co-legislator, sharing with the European Council the power to adopt and amend legislative proposals and to decide on the EU budget. It also supervises the work of the European Commission and other EU bodies and cooperates with national parliaments of EU countries to get their inputs.

However, this potent institution is currently facing an existential crisis as it grapples with the damaging bribery scandal that broke out earlier this week. The abuse and misuse of power by some law makers has rattled EU institutions. The European Parliament is at the centre of a spreading corruption scandal after Belgian police seized huge amount of money in cash and detained an MEP as part of an international investigation into claims that FIFA Football World Cup host Qatar sought to buy influence. Qatar and the MEPs have denied the charges.

This will go down in history of European Parliament as one of the most shocking, damaging, and unfortunate, and also one the largest scandals in European politics. The scandal also speaks of the dark sides of corrupt operation in the European Parliament.

One of the Vice Presidents of the European Parliament Eva Kylie was detained on charges of involvement in corrupt deals for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. This is not the first case of bribery and corruption scandal involving Kylie, who has been elected to the European Parliament from Greece and has also worked closely with some lobbying groups active in Europe.

The European Parliament has been the mouth of the EU members states. It has demonstrated solidarity in responding to Russia’s 2022 war against Ukraine, although the conflict has contributed to rising energy prices and inflation in the EU. The war also has galvanised debate in the EP on several long-standing EU initiatives, including in the areas of security and defence, energy and climate policies, and EU enlargement.

However, of last few days in the heart of EU institutions involving some Members of European Parliament in a bribery scandal has rattled European Union and those who believe in European democracy. They have also, unfortunately, strengthened the hand of many detractors of the idea of EU, both within the Union and outside, who have long alleged that EU is an opaque institution with little accountability that controls the lives of the over 400 million people who call EU home.

Multiple crises hit EU institutions

The European Union is not undergoing one crisis, but is instead suffering several simultaneous, interrelated, and intertwined crises—crises, which are global, not exclusively European. Put differently, the subprime crisis turned the economic, financial, fiscal, macroeconomic, and political structure weaknesses of the Western socio-economic order into at least five major crises. What is at stake is not only the integrity of the Institution but the credibility of EU institutions, their relevance and their values.

Incidents of corruption in high places like the current scandal in the European Parliament severely corrode the remaining public trust in EU institutions. They also hobble effective governance and provide undemocratic governments and enemies of the EU means to undermine European democracies. Corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many of problems we are facing in the EU today.

Therefore, the time is nigh to modernise mechanism and improve the ability of key agencies of the European Parliament to prevent and combat corruption, including, by proposing relevant legislation to the European Parliament Constitution. It is also time to hold accountable those corrupt individual lawmakers and their facilitators and associates, through increased vigilance.

Lobbying in Brussels has changed dramatically in recent years. There are an estimated 25,000 lobbyists working in Brussels; most of whom are representing the interests of corporations and their lobby groups. Europe’s politics are getting murkier and often shady with methods of corporate lobbying used to influence decision making in the European Union.

Some Members of the European Parliament have been actively involved in placing their staff and those of their colleagues in key positions within the lobbying community. Far too often, these lawmakers leave office and immediately travel through the infamous revolving door to represent industries that have business before the European Commission and European Parliament. Corporations, lobbying firms, and interest groups hire departing members of House and top staffers at a rapid clip.

It should not surprise anyone that some lawmakers are actively participating in corruption directly or indirectly through their nominees and proxies. For long the European Parliament has been a ripe target for people seeking funds or favours or to influence policy. Sadly, it has become a hornet’s nest of suspicion, and mistrust, while the heads of the main European institutions try to defend the “integrity” of the European project in times of growing citizen mistrust by promising zero tolerance against corruption and greater transparency

Consultations with stakeholders is the key

It is in the interest of European Parliament to support and strengthen the capacity of trade bodies, civil society, media, and other oversight and accountability actors to share their views and analysis on how illegal funds enter the European Parliament under the guide of ‘lobbying’. Only by establishing best practices and enforcing mechanisms and built-in corruption prevention measures, such scandals can be avoided.

In view of the frustrating events, the European Parliament should now take immediate steps to strengthen the law relating to the bribery of, or receipt of a bribe by, a Member of European Parliament. The Parliament should urgently set up a Judicial Commission of Enquiry to undertake an immediate review of the current statute law relating to bribery, with specific reference to those lawmakers who have been involved in this scandal.

Accountability through transparency is key to lobbying reform. It is therefore important to set up and empower an independent monitoring body to aggressively tackle corruption, through all the tools and mechanism legally possessed by the Parliament. Enabling a mechanism for disclosure of acts of corruption and the bribery of law makers will assist in promoting a culture of accountability and integrity in public life in the European Union.

Unfortunately, the arrests and detention of MEPs by Belgian anti-corruption authority are not confined only to the European Parliament. The General Secretary of the world’s largest trade union body, the International Trade Union Confederation Luca Visentini has also been arrested and huge amount of money has been recovered from him. Earlier this year, on July 22, Stephen Sackur, anchor of BBC’s popular talkshow, Hardtalk, had interviewed the former General Secretary Sharan Burrow of the ITUC, four months before the FIFA22.

Burrow had tried to avoid the abuse of human and labour rights in Qatar, and she was surprisingly soft on Qatar. Now one should know the reason behind ITUC’s silence on trade union rights abuse in Qatar. Luca Visentini was elected general secretary of the ITUC at the organisation’s 5th World Congress in Melbourne last month. Indeed, this scandal brings disgrace to the trade union body and exposes nexus between some members of European Parliament and NGOs.

Without doubt, the events of the last few days will make many Europeans feel that the European Union is in dire straits. Some may even feel that it is facing an existential crisis that could result in the disintegration of the Union. After Brexit this is probably the most damning event for the EU. However, we are of the view that still the turmoil of the last few days does not necessarily indicate a super full-blown crisis for the European democracy as there is still time to recover from this crisis.

European Union reeling under energy crisis now faces the crisis of credibility of an institution that has long been seen as the people’s voice of the member states. This scandal has also undermined the Parliament’s claim to the moral high ground in its own investigations, such as into allegations of corruption in some member countries of EU.

We cannot imagine that MEPs who enjoy a glamourous lifestyle, can cause such damage to the Institution that feeds them honour, gives them status of “superhuman” being and offers them platform to exercise their power. In the case of MEP Maria Arena, her resignation from the Chair of the Sub-Committee on Human Rights is not enough. She has damaged the prestige and mission of the Sub-Committee and she cannot be allowed to remain a MEP.

It is widely believed that MEP Maria Arena has used her privileges for her personal interest. If investigating agencies go deeper, it should not surprise any that she has been on payroll of some foreign countries who are keen that their human rights violations issues are not discussed by the European Parliament and would prefer burying the issue under bags full of money.

Today, it is ‘Qatargate’ and make no mistake tomorrow it could be ‘Chinagate’. Is the European Parliament prepared to confront the magnitude and persistence of China’s influence and operations to undermine EU’s democracy? Beijing’s aim is to use unprepared governments as the weak links through which to infiltrate the EU’s political system. It’s high time that European Parliament takes a stand against Chinese infiltration in the EU because China is a consequential threat facing the European Union today.

FIFA 2022 will be over tomorrow, but the ‘Golden Ball’ will continue to rattle European political scene for a long time.

Sunil Prasad, is the Secretary General of Brussels based Europe India Chamber of Commerce and the views expressed here are his personal views.



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