Don’t say they didn’t warn you. After Belgian police arrested five people – including former Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili – in December over suspicions of bribery by Qatari officials, the message rang out from transparency advocates who have cautioned for years the European Parliament was at risk of foreign interference.
“We’re obviously shocked by this scandal but we’re not surprised,” said Olivier Hoedeman, researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, in a video posted following the arrests. “We have called upon the [European Union] institutions to introduce strong rules to protect decision-making against repressive regimes, but these suggestions have been largely ignored.
“The European Parliament didn’t really have proper lobby regulations, transparency rules and ethics rules in place that could have protected decision-making against interference from repressive regimes like Qatar,” he added.
At first glance the Qatar corruption scandal, which has gone on to also implicate Morocco, is not a lobbying scandal. Lobbying, after all, is a legal activity. The EU has rules in place that set the terms of lobbying its institutions, and some 12,000 organisations are registered with the bloc’s voluntary EU lobby register, where roughly €1.8bn in lobby spending is declared annually, according to Transparency International.
Bribery is a criminal activity that replaces the exchange of information and negotiation with cold, hard cash (at least €1.5m in this case, based on what police discovered at the homes of the accused).
But it might as well be a lobbying scandal, too. If only for the fact the influence of states with dubious human rights records like Qatar has remained shrouded in mystery thanks to those very lobbying rules, which have been criticised as porous and lacking in enforcement – especially at the European Parliament.
Individuals within the EU have been raising the alarm about the lack of transparency around lobbying activities for years. “There is no mandatory regulation on reporting or registering lobby activities. Registers provided by lobbyists’ organisations in the EU are voluntary and incomprehensive, and do not provide much information on the specific interests represented or how it is financed.” Those were the words of Siim Kallas, then European Commissioner for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud, at the launch of the European Transparency Initiative in March 2005.
Rules have evolved and changed since then, but the concerns Kallas raised are still relevant in many quarters.
There is now the Transparency Register, introduced in 2011, which gives the public access to information on who is lobbying EU institutions, whom they represent and how much money they spend on their lobbying activities.
But the register is voluntary, meaning not all those engaged in lobbying activities are required to register. On top of that, the register is self-reported and not independently verified, which has led to concerns about under-reporting of lobbying activities. Additionally, no ethics watchdog has been formed for overseeing whether officials actually comply with these rules.
In the meantime, while the European Commission requires commissioners and senior bureaucrats to publish their meetings with lobbyists, the European Parliament only requires committee chairs, rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs to disclose their meetings. This means regular MEPs and their staff are not required to make the same disclosures, which were introduced in 2019.
In fact, a week before the Qatar scandal became headline news around the world, Transparency International published an analysis of 28,000 lobby meetings reported by MEPs from mid-2019 to mid-2022 and found that just over half the Parliament’s 705 legislators made disclosures. The number of meetings disclosed also fell from 9,700 in the first year of the organisation’s scrutiny to 9,300 in 2021.
Chasms have opened across national lines, as a result. While 95 per cent of Swedish MEPs published information on their meetings, just 10 per cent of Greek MEPs did.
Then there are the controversial parties at the heart of the corruption scandal: third-country governments. Officials of third countries are exempt from the transparency rules and, already, the European Parliament has been warned its lobbying rules come up short as a result.
Last year, in a report on foreign interference in the EU’s democratic processes, rapporteur Sandra Kalniete wrote “there is a serious lack of legally binding rules and enforcement of the EU’s lobbying register, which makes it practically impossible to track lobbying coming from outside the EU”. Her report noted that only the United States, Australia and Canada have rules covering foreign influence.
“There is a serious lack of legally binding rules and enforcement of the EU’s lobbying register, which makes it practically impossible to track lobbying coming from outside the EU”
Kalniete stressed that “rules on lobbying in the EU focus mainly on face-to-face contact and do not take into account the whole ecosystem of different types of lobbying that exists in Brussels”, adding that “countries such as China and Russia, but also Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, have invested heavily in lobbying efforts in Brussels”. (With in-house and external lobbying methods, third-country governments can work on everything from improving their global image to securing EU trade relationships and campaigning against EU regulations, just like other lobbyists.)
Some changes have been introduced to allay concerns. As of 2021, lobbying entities without diplomatic status must register any third-country clients, but to many that clearly ignores most foreign lobbying activity.
“It’s a pity the obligation for registration… doesn’t encompass national embassies, where a large part of lobbying is done,” Czech MEP Marcel Kolaja (Greens/EFA) said of reporting requirements. “This is clearly not enough.”
(In 2021, the European Parliament also declined to insist upon so-called “strict conditionality” to the Transparency Register, meaning MEPs would only have been able to meet with registered lobbyists, something senior European Commission officials at the EU's executive arm are already subject to.)
Past listings in the registry make clear how the EU’s patchy rules – and limited enforcement mechanisms – have made it difficult to determine the scope of lobbying activity by third countries.
For example, according to the LobbyFacts database, which pulls information from the Transparency Register, Liberia spent €100,000 to €199,999 on a lobbying firm in 2019. At the same time, no meetings with Liberia were recorded by any MEPs or the Juncker or von der Leyen Commissions, according to a database of MEP and Commission meetings compiled from EU data by Transparency International. (There is no indication of wrongdoing; the current rules just make it near impossible to determine how Liberia lobbied the EU and for what.)
Before the reporting requirement in 2021, Corporate Europe Observatory reported claims made by an “industry insider” that MSL Brussels – a lobbying firm owned by French media conglomerate Publicis Groupe – worked for the government of Saudi Arabia from as early as 2015. MSL Brussels did not include Saudi Arabia in its list of registered clients, nor was the list ever updated to include them.
More immediately, an NGO linked to the Qatari corruption allegations known as Fight Impunity was not registered (its president, former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri was arrested as part of the bribery sweep).
Almost immediately after the Qatar scandal broke, experts and advocates who had warned of a lack of transparency in Brussels were quick to assert there are credible reforms to be made – if the EU can find the will to make them.
Corporate Europe Observatory, Transparency International and non-profit The Good Lobby reaffirmed calls for lobbying from third countries to be published in the Transparency Register.
German MEP Daniel Freund (Greens/EFA) echoed those sentiments, saying in a statement “the EU must improve this immediately. Lobbying from third countries must be published in the lobby register.”
“Lobbying from third countries must be published in the lobby register”
In addition, the Corporate Europe Observatory urged the European Parliament to require all MEPs to publish basic information about meetings they take with lobbyists and ban meetings with unregistered lobbyists.
“There are two main issues with lobby transparency in the Parliament. First of all, there is no oversight or enforcement of the rules,” Vitor Teixeira, a senior policy officer at Transparency International EU, noted in a report days before the Qatar corruption scandal broke. “The second issue is there are many other people involved in lobbying who are not covered by any rules, including accredited parliamentary assistants and political group advisers.”
The need for reform at the European Parliament appears especially acute to officials at the Commission and the European Council, no doubt aware the wider public likely distinguishes less between the branches of the EU (or, as United Kingdom-based magazine The Economist described the Parliament’s lack of notoriety, “The brightest national MPs often rise to positions of prominence in government. The brightest MEPs are known mainly to a few Twitter obsessives in the Brussels bubble”).
To that end, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen repeated a call for the establishment of an ethics body to oversee all EU institutions, including Parliament. “We have one with very clear rules internally in the European Commission, and I think it is time to discuss where we could establish this overall for all EU institutions,” she told a press conference in Brussels last December.
The wave of initial press conferences about the scandal now over, the hope is it will serve as the much-needed impetus for long-running discussions about EU transparency to turn into concrete action.