In February, Democracy Drinks Berlin got back into the swing of things with an evening of juicy political gossip to discuss the fall out of Qatargate, the cash-for-influence scandal involving high-level European Parliament lawmakers, and the habitual undue influence tolerated by European Union institutions.
Liberties was joined by corruption experts Flora Cresswell and Jorge Valladares of Transparency International’s global headquarters, whose insights into the questionable working practices of EU politicians explain how a scandal of this magnitude was a matter of when and not if.
“A scandal that had to happen”
Jorge, Political Integrity Lead at TI, describes Qatargate as a ‘scandal that had to happen’, saying three factors set the stage for the scandal: low transparency, conflicts of interest and weak accountability. This breeds a culture of impunity within EU institutions, where people look the other way when rules are broken and unethical behaviour is business-as-usual.
Instead of taking accountability for its own lax anti-corruption measures, the initial reaction of the European Parliament was to spin the story as foreign interference invading Europe. According to Flora, Regional Coordinator - Western Europe, the EU doesn’t hold itself to the same high standards that it expects of others. While member states are bound by the EU whistleblowers protection directive, it is not applicable to the EU institutions themselves, which explains why parliament assistants afraid of risking their careers may have looked the other way.
If this has been going on for so long - why the sudden interest?
While the suitcases stuffed with cash certainly added a sensationalist sheen to the story, Jorge believes that the foreign element of the Qatargate scandal accounts for the increased public attention.
A possible silver lining is that shining the spotlight on the conduct of EU lawmakers will prompt more general concern about lobbying practice - and hopefully lead to genuine change. But for now, the damage is already done. According to TI’s own corruption perception index, the public’s perception of public sector corruption were at the lowest levels this year in Europe.
Addressing the endemic corruption will require self-regulation, however while Europe performs well across most corruption indicators, political integrity remains a blind spot. If it hopes to restore public trust, the EU will need to show that it is serious about tackling corruption, and not just appearing to do so.
It should come as no surprise that the Parliament is the EU institution with the weakest accountability measures. Flora says a good first start would be an integrity tab (which already exists for the Commission), making good on promises to create the much-talked-about and always-delayed ethics body, as well as recording meetings and making them publicly accessible.
Sanctions are sorely missing from Metsola’s 14-point plan. According to Flora, ‘Punishments are really needed. The rules are there, but they aren’t following them.’
“Lobbying is like legal corruption.”
Jorge echoes the necessity for MEPs to make publicly available who they are meeting. While that is already a requirement, in reality only 50% do so. Describing lobbying as “legal corruption”, he believes what the transparency register reveals could transform how we view lobbying: ‘It will tell us something about how laws and policies are made. It will be a game-changer.” Lobbying the EU can also prove lucrative if the influence extends to how the EU spends its money through public procurement, both for current and future projects.
While it is important that a range of views should be heard, Jorge believes that the favourable treatment given to corporate lobbying is more like a 3-course meal than just a foot in the door. TI’s lobby monitoring tool reveals that the overwhelming majority of lobbying meetings held by European Commissioners are with representatives of corporate interests. Flora expresses her concern that kleptocratic regimes are being given a platform to influence EU democracies.
With the behaviour of EU politicians inviting increased scrutiny, Qatargate gives us an opportunity to examine the culture of lobbying and ask whether it really has citizens’ best interests at heart. Liberties will be paying close attention to the EU’s next steps to improve transparency amongst its own ranks. Whether they opt for superficial measures or genuine reforms remains to be seen, but the responsibility to get their own house in order lies squarely with EU lawmakers.
Democracy Drinks is an informal networking event for civil society colleagues, which Liberties has been organising in Berlin since 2019. Each month we invite a special guest to discuss a pressing social issue affecting democracy. The events attract a lively mixture of people from NGOs, international institutions, think tanks, national governments and representations, academia, public affairs consultancies, social businesses and active citizens.
Are you based in Berlin and want to be notified about future Democracy Drinks by Liberties events? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll add you to our mailing list.Flora Cresswell is the Regional Coordinator for Western Europe & Canada and Jorge Valladares is the Political Integrity Policy Lead at the Transparency International Secretariat.
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