Climbing a mountain is always a struggle, especially when the summit to gain is transparency, accountability, and integrity through the jungle of Brussels bureaucracy.
Sometimes you need to be inventive and find original ways of getting through the obstacles. But from time to time, the path is already there and you only need to embrace it.
Last April, we (Transparency International EU) released our EU integrity system report, a comprehensive study assessing corruption risks in 10 EU institutions. The report pointed out how the European parliament has a range of provisions already in place which can significantly reduce integrity threats... if enforced.
"It is necessary to restore citizens' trust in the institutions, and we hope that parliament's authorities will take equally swift and decisive action if evidence of similar irregularities comes to light involving other political parties"
It goes without saying that strong political will to implement existing rules plays a crucial role in combating corruption. We therefore commend European parliament president Martin Schulz for his swift action in alerting the EU's anti-fraud office (OLAF) about the possible misuse of parliament funds.
Schulz has asked OLAF to investigate allegations that French Front National MEPs have made fraudulent claims for assistant salaries. It is alleged that 20 Front National MEP assistants work for the national party and are listed as national party staff on the FN website.
Under the European parliament's rules, MEP assistants have to work exclusively on issues relating to the parliamentary activity of the MEP they work for.
Article 43 of the members' statute says that MEP staff allowances "may not be used directly or indirectly… to finance contracts concluded with parliament's political groups or political parties".
This provision basically prevents direct or indirect financing of national political parties from the parliament's budget.
The parliament's approach on this occasion follows the right path. It is necessary to restore citizens' trust in the institutions, and we hope that parliament's authorities will take equally swift and decisive action if evidence of similar irregularities comes to light involving other political parties.
Political parties across Europe are seeing their funding base squeezed and there may be a temptation for them to use EU funding as a way of topping up their own scarce resources. It would indeed be a great shame if this investigation was prompted by political considerations, as some have alleged, rather than a genuine concern to safeguard EU funds from misuse.
"When it comes to whistleblowing, the parliament still fails to comply with its obligation under the EU staff regulations to establish internal guidelines to make it clear what channels are available to staff and how they would be protected in cases where they report wrongdoing"
We might also reflect that corruption cases generally only come to light through three main channels: journalists following a lead; systematic monitoring by relevant authorities; or whistleblowers coming forward.
In this particular case, it was journalists who alerted the parliament to the alleged fraud. What our study shows is, as far as parliament is concerned, the other two channels are either non-existent or do not function properly.
Take the monitoring of conflicts of interest for example. When we launched our EU integrity watch database last year, we found dozens of irregularities and omissions in the declarations of financial interest of MEPs that should have been easily spotted by parliament's administration.
Other declarations feature meaningless job descriptions such as 'freelancer' or 'consultant'. Not a single MEP has ever been sanctioned despite several manifest violations of the code of conduct.
When it comes to whistleblowing, the parliament still fails to comply with its obligation under the EU staff regulations to establish internal guidelines to make it clear what channels are available to staff and how they would be protected in cases where they report wrongdoing.
MEP assistants are particularly vulnerable in this regard and should be given proper assurances. All this should be spelled out in a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy - a 'zero-tolerance' policy against fraud and corruption.
The way is certainly steep and winding, but the adoption of effective reforms will guarantee more open, transparent, and accountable institutions.