The Malta Independent 30 March 2023, Thursday
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The Eva Kaili Qatar scandal aftermath

Mark Said Sunday, 5 February 2023, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Qatar bribery scandal was symptomatic of a much deeper and more widespread problem with corruption not just in the European Parliament, but across all the EU institutions. It was a scandal that rocked the whole concept of the EU and one that revealed how and why EU institutions are vulnerable to corruption due to loopholes and poor enforcement of rules on ethics, transparency and financial control.  


It posed the question of whether the whole of the EU is a rotten barrel rather than having a few rotten apples. The absence of mandatory lobbying rules at the EU level and the growing trend to negotiate laws behind closed doors constitute major flaws in such institutions as the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the EU, the European Commission, together with watchdog bodies such as the EU Court of Justice, the European Court of Auditors, the European Anti-Fraud Office, Europol and Eurojust and the European Ombudsman.

When discussing corruption we often just imagine shady scenarios where money changes hands. However, public scandals have raised people’s attention to the threat of conflicts of interest created by revolving doors. European Union institutions in particular had been under the spotlight since when Goldman Sachs International announced that the former President of the Commission Barroso was to become its new chairman and adviser. A wave of criticism followed, from heads of state to employees of the EU institutions and citizens at large. The scandal reignited discussions in the EU of the revolving doors phenomenon, that is the transition of public officials from public office to private organisations and, conversely, the transition of corporate lobbyists and other employees from private organisations to public bodies overseeing their previous industry.

Such professional moves create a set of threats to the integrity and independence of policy-making. Above all, they create biases, because when public officials take up a role in the private sector they carry with them insider know-how, a contact network and a reputation that can open many doors. There is a real threat of creating an unfair playing field benefiting those that actively seek to recruit through the revolving door. Even while in office, public officials might retain biases and unfairly benefit private interests because of their previous jobs or due to the expectation of future ones.

But the problem extends far beyond the Commission. Rules put in place vary widely from one EU institution to another but there is one unifying line between them, namely that they are too weak, full of loopholes and often poorly enforced. Ironically, despite their own weak track record on the issue, Europeans are great at spreading the anticorruption gospel to the world, including countries in the Western Balkans and in Africa. But their moral standing is eroded by their failure to practice what they preach.

The European Parliament could make a start by publishing the details of how every euro of taxpayers’ money, given to members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to spend on staff, travel and other allowances, is spent with full details of payments to every MEP’s assistant, salary and expenses and to outside firms or contractors paid to provide services of any sort to MEPs. The same could be applied to any firm or individual awarded a contract or given a subsidy either directly by the EU or paid from EU transfers to national budgets. Corrupt practices do not need to involve bags of cash only. It can also involve trips to far-flung destinations paid for by foreign organisations.

In this context, perhaps the choice of Kövesi as the EU’s first public prosecutor was a first welcome sign that the bloc is finally getting serious about tackling Europe’s dirty secret, corruption. This makes it more important than ever that members of any new European Commission from now onwards have no corruption-linked skeletons in the cupboard. The European Parliament will therefore have to be very thorough when it quizzes every new EU team in the coming years. Perhaps the EU can also pursue other options. An easy one would be to offer strong and practical support to public service-led journalism and non-profit media organisations that are dedicated to investigative reporting seeking to expose abuses of power at the expense of the people. Furthermore, one could lend support to the idea of creating an independent ethics body that could investigate wrongdoing across all EU bodies.

Safeguarding the EU public interest requires that the institutions promote a policy of transparency by default in EU decision-making and that conflicts of interest of senior EU decision-makers are dealt with effectively. In addition, improvements are needed in the EU’s debarment system, one of the few weapons available to deter corruption in EU funds. The EU needs to do better to create a culture of openness by putting in place effective internal whistle-blowing procedures at all institutions. Not only, but the European Public Prosecutor must be given broader powers to tackle cross-border corruption.

Finally, the EU will remain unable to make convincing moves against corruption as long as it does not agree to a single legal definition of corruption across the EU institutions and the 28 member states as well as a uniform set of criminal rules and penalties. And ideally of standards too. It is not a single functionary that will “de-corrupt” Europe but an embrace of the fullest transparency.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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