One thing is for certain: €1.5m is no laughing matter. That’s the amount of cash law enforcement officials in Belgium, Italy and Greece seized in connection with a bribery conspiracy that rocked the European Parliament last December and has so far seen four people, including Greek MEP Eva Kaili, charged with corruption.
But €150? Well, anything under that amount may be worth cracking a smile over. According to the European Parliament’s code of conduct, MEPs should refrain from accepting a gift at or above that approximate value. If a stakeholder finds a sale and nabs a present for €149.99, it’s up to the MEP to decide whether to keep it. Anything more and the item must be handed over to the Parliament’s president.
A voluntary register of gifts for the current session reveals only eight of the 705 MEPs have bothered to declare anything. But what MEPs do report reveals some interesting choices from gift-givers about legal offerings to parliamentarians.
Some gifts are objectively beautiful, like a hand-painted decorative wooden box given to Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala by officials from Uzbekistan. While worth less than €150, Hautala chose to hand it over to the presidency.
Others are downright sweet. The European Union of Jewish Students gave German MEP Nicola Beer a lovely box of confectionary - including Snickers, Smarties, Oreo cookies and some Ferrero Rocher. The temptation to keep the treats must have been overwhelming, but Beer handed them over to the presidency.
There’s the occasional headscratcher. Officials from Bahrain offered German MEP David McAllister a Samsung Galaxy tablet – worth more than €150 and thus handed over to the presidency – though one presumes McAllister and his office were not short of IT equipment.
Not all gifts, as the rules suggest, are handed over. During the last parliamentary term, German MEP Bernd Lange kept an embroidered picture of a lotus gifted by Vietnamese officials from Ho Chi Minh City and valued at less than €150.
As expected, the majority of gifts are run-of-the-mill commemorative items that seem destined to end up in a drawer whether handed over to the presidency or not. MEPs’ offices are showered with enough plaques, plates, coins and medals to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault.
MEPs’ offices are showered with enough plaques, plates, coins and medals to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault.
Granted, the very limited amount of transparency required of MEPs may also conceal some especially extravagant gifts that go undeclared in the voluntary register. In the United States, for example, officials have been presented with outlandish gifts, despite even steeper rules that bar elected federal officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50, and no gifts at all from registered lobbyists or foreign agents.
That did not stop Argentina from gifting former President George W Bush 136kg of raw lamb, or Saudi Arabia from sending more than $1m in jewellery to the family of former President Barack Obama. The latter was handed over to the US National Archives, while the meat was regifted to the US General Services Administration, which presumably had the barbecue to end all barbecues.
Maybe one day when reporting standards improve, Luxembourg Square will get its own cookout.