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A few rotten apples or a whole rotten barrel? Brussels grapples with corruption scandal – POLITICO

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As Belgian police launched a second wave of raids on the European Parliament, a stunned Brussels elite began to wrestle with an uncomfortable question at the heart of the Qatar corruption probe: how far does the rot go?

So far, police investigations launched by Belgian prosecutor Michel Claise have resulted in the imprisonment of four people, including the deputy speaker of Parliament Eva Kaili, for corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organisation.

After the initial shock of those arrests wore off, several parliament officials told POLITICO they believed the allegations would be limited to “a few individuals” who had gone astray by allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of euros in species of Qatari interests.

But that theory was beginning to unravel on Monday night, as Belgian police carried out another round of raids on parliament offices just as lawmakers gathered in Strasbourg, one of the European Parliament’s two sites, for their first meeting after the arrests were announced on Friday. .

With 19 residences and offices raided – in addition to parliament – ​​six people arrested and sums of at least around €1million recovered, some EU officials and activists said they believed more names would be drawn into the ever-widening net – and that the corruption scandal in Qatar was symptomatic of a much deeper and more widespread corruption problem, not only in the European Parliament, but in all EU institutions .

In parliament, the lax oversight of members’ financial activities and the fact that states have been able to contact them without ever recording encounters in a public record amounts to a recipe for corruption, these critics argued.

Beyond the Parliament, they pointed to the revolving door of senior civil servants who leave to serve private interests after a stint in the European Commission or the Council as proof that stricter control of the institutions is in order. Others have cited the legacy of Commission Jacques Santer – who resigned en masse in 1998 – as proof that no EU institution is immune to unlawful influence.

“Justice will determine who is guilty, but what is certain is that it is not only Qatar, and it is not only the individuals who have been named who are involved” in operations of foreign influence, Raphael Glucksmann, a French lawmaker with a Socialist and Democrat background who heads a committee against foreign interference in parliament, told POLITICO in Strasbourg.

Michiel van Hulten, a former lawmaker who now heads Transparency International’s European office, said that while blatant cases of corruption involving bags of cash were rare, “it’s highly likely that there are names in this scandal we haven’t heard of yet. There is undue influence on a scale we haven’t seen so far. It doesn’t need to involve money bags. This may involve travel to distant destinations paid for by foreign organizations – and in this sense there is a more widespread problem.

The fact that Parliament does not have built-in protections for internal whistleblowers, despite voting in favor of such protections for EU citizens, added to the problem, he added. In 1998, it was a whistleblower denouncing the mismanagement of the Santer Commission that precipitated a massive resignation of the European executive.

Glucksmann also called for “extremely deep reforms” to a system that allows lawmakers to hold more than one job, leaves oversight of personal finances to a self-regulatory committee made up of lawmakers and gives state actors the access to legislators without having to record their meeting publicly.

Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili | Jalal Morchidi/EFE via EPA

“If the parliament wants to get out of this, it will have to strike hard and undertake extremely deep reforms,” ​​added Glucksmann, who previously cited Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan as countries that have sought to influence political decisions in parliament.

To begin tackling the problem, Glucksmann has called for an ad hoc committee of inquiry in parliament, while other leftist and Green lawmakers have called for reforms, including appointing an anti-political vice president. -corruption to replace Kaili, who was expelled from the S&D. Monday evening and the establishment of an ethics committee overseeing all EU institutions.

glass half full

Others, however, were less convinced that the corruption probe would reveal new names, or that the facts uncovered last Friday spoke to a wider problem in the EU. Asked about the extent of the corruption scandal, a senior parliamentary official who asked not to be named in order to discuss confidential deliberations said: “As serious as this is, it is a matter of individuals, of a few people who made very bad decisions. The investigation and the arrests show that our systems and procedures worked.

Valérie Hayer, a French lawmaker from the centrist group Renew, made a similar note, saying that while she was deeply concerned about a “risk to our democracy” from foreign interference, she did not believe the scandal indicated “corruption. widespread”. in the EU. “Unfortunately, there are bad apples,” she said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is being criticized for her handling of COVID-19 vaccination deals with Pfizer, declined to answer questions about her Vice President Margaritis Schinas’ dealings with Qatar during a a press briefing, triggering the fury of the Brussels press.

The Greek commissioner represented the EU at the World Cup opening ceremony last month and has come under fire from MEPs for his tweets in recent months praising Qatar’s labor reforms.

A few rotten apples or a whole rotten barrel? Brussels grapples with corruption scandal – POLITICO
Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

Asked about the Commission’s response to the Qatar corruption scandal that has ravaged the European Parliament, and in particular about Schinas’ position, von der Leyen remained silent on the Greek commissioner.

Von der Leyen did, however, appear to support the creation of an independent ethics body that could investigate wrongdoing in all EU bodies.

“These rules [on lobbying by state actors] are the same in all three EU institutions,” said the senior parliamentary official, referring to the European Commission, the Parliament and the European Council, the round table of EU governments.

The split on how to fight corruption shows how, even in the face of what appears to be a blatant example of corruption, members of the Brussels system – made up of thousands of well-paid bureaucrats and elected officials, many of whom benefit from the legal immunity in the course of their jobs – seeks to protect against scrutiny that could threaten incomes or derail careers.

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