The corruption scandal in the European Parliament – allegedly involving former Vice-President Eva Kaili, several other MEPs and cash payments from recent Fifa men’s World Cup host Qatar – has been sending shockwaves all over Europe. It has yet again raised the question of whether it’s possible to buy political influence in Brussels. And at what point the line between legitimate lobbying and corruption is crossed.
It is legitimate for representatives from businesses and NGOs to influence European Union policy. To make influence transparent, there is a wide set of rules: committee chairs in the European Parliament and MEPs who negotiate laws must disclose their meetings with lobbyists. Gifts above a certain value must be reported to the administration and handed over. Employment alongside the mandate may only be taken up if it does not result in any conflicts of interest.
The rules are good. In theory, they make the European Parliament one of the cleanest in Europe. Yet they could not prevent the current corruption scandal. Clearly, bags of cash are a case for the public prosecutor's office, not for lobbying rules. But there are four measures that would curb the risk of corruption in Europe.
Sponsored trips must be banned. Dictatorships like to send invitations to MEPs that include first-class flights to the capital, overnight stays in luxury hotels, a tourist programme during the day and fine dining in the evening. After such a trip, does one still express criticism of human rights violations in the country? These luxury trips are obviously about making contacts. Currently, they must be reported to the parliamentary administration, but there is no control mechanism.
Third-country lobbying must be registered in the Transparency Register: Volkswagen spends around €3m a year on lobbying in Brussels. Five lobbyists have a house pass for the European Parliament. In 2022, the German carmaker held six meetings with the EU Commission. How do we know? This information is publicly available in the Transparency Register. But when Morocco, Qatar or China lobby for their interests, we know nothing about it. That needs to change.
We need clarity on MEPs’ assets, and any moonlighting must be reported. However, if wealth is received from unknown sources during a legislative session, it cannot be traced. We therefore need declarations of assets at the beginning and end of each session, which are made available to the relevant investigating authorities. This would make it harder to hide potential bribes.
The current system of self-monitoring has contributed to the culture of impunity among some MEPs
Finally, lobbying rules must be independently controlled. Good rules are of little use if they are not enforced. Currently, the rules of conduct in the European Parliament are monitored by five MEPs. They do not have enforcement powers. In recent years, apart from one oral reprimand, sanctions have been imposed on an MEP in one case – only one! – even though 24 violations of the code of conduct are known.
Corruption is committed when people are convinced they can get away with it. The current system of self-monitoring has contributed to the culture of impunity among some MEPs in Brussels. Low-level offences must be punished before misconduct reaches criminal dimensions.
Even if transparency does not prevent crimes, it could help in solving them: it would be an immense help to the Belgian investigators if they already knew who else the Qatari lobbyists met with.