Eva Kaili has made a partial confession in the EU corruption scandal. Some EU institutions have made headlines about bribery over time. Gray areas and loopholes encourage influence.
When Laura Kövesi speaks up, it gets serious. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office of the fraudster from Romania is considered the EU’s most powerful weapon against corruption. At the end of last week, after the Belgian investigative authorities, Kövesi also approached the former Vice President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, and requested that her immunity and that of another Greek MEP be lifted. Unlike the Belgian investigation, it was not about alleged susceptibility to attempts at bribery from Qatar, but about the payment of parliamentary assistants.
Kövesi’s authority is relatively new, corruption in the EU institutions is not. The most serious case to date swept away an entire European Commission. In 1999, a diligent low-level official, Dutch financial controller Paul van Buitenen, uncovered irregularities in the way the EU Commission, headed by Luxembourger Jacques Santer, was handling budget funds. She narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in the European Parliament (EP) and eventually resigned after a committee of inquiry gathered evidence of misconduct.
Years after the scandal, van Buitenen told Deutsche Welle about his experiences at the time – in the meantime he had become a MEP for an anti-corruption party he founded: “If people raise the alarm about irregularities like I did in 1999, then we will be suspended – and if possible , our salary will also be halved. Something is wrong here.”
In the current case, the suspicion that something was not right quickly crept over members of the socialist parliamentary group, to which the Greek belonged until she was thrown out. “Something is wrong with us,” socialist colleagues in parliament would have suspected, reported Green MEP Viola von Cramon in a webinar for her party. The reason was Kaili’s influence on a resolution on Qatar shortly before the start of the soccer World Cup. The mild tone of the statement caused “a lot of frowning from all kinds of people”.
The news portal “Politico” recently called the EP a “loophole parliament”. The cabaret artist Nico Semsrott, a non-party member of the Greens parliamentary group, commented bitterly on the Kaili case on his website: “For some politicians, their mandate is not a mandate from the citizens, but a business model”.
A corruption scandal rocked the EP more than a decade ago. In 2011, journalists from Britain’s Sunday Times explored how far some MEPs were willing to go to enrich themselves. Three MPs accepted a bait offer to support legislative amendments for a fee.
In April of this year, reports burst into the French election campaign that the then presidential candidate Marine Le Pen from the Rassemblement National was suspected of having embezzled around 600,000 euros together with confidants during her time as MEP.
The annual report of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) for 2021 mentions, without naming, “serious irregularities and fraudulent activities” in the EP, which “led to a recommendation to recover a substantial amount of 600,000 euros”. The investigation covered four MPs and five employees.
According to the CSU MEP Markus Ferber, parliamentary question times are susceptible to undue influence. Outsiders might get the idea to order questions. A weak point has also turned out to be how easily former members of parliament can set up non-governmental organizations and let their old contacts play.
The so-called “revolving door effect” also pays off for former civil servants and functionaries who, after leaving the EU, find employment elsewhere and use their good connections to Brussels.
Part-time jobs are also profitable. In a resolution, MEPs said they were “concerned about potential conflicts of interest caused by outside activities of members, particularly when they are managers, board members, advisory boards or advisors to banks, multinational companies or listed companies”.
In a self-portrayal, the EP states: “Occasionally, members of the European Parliament form unofficial groups to discuss relations with third countries.”
“That should now finally be restricted. That’s long overdue,” she told party members in a webinar by the Thuringian Greens. Members of such groups could be invited to attractive trips with overnight stays in five-star hotels. Ten to 15 “well-organized people” are able to influence the opinion of an entire faction in favor of their patrons.
From 2017 to 2021, OLAF conducted almost 100 investigations into EU institutions on suspicion of “serious misconduct”. In about half of the cases, there were consequences. In general, according to the investigating authority, such transactions concern “false declarations of expenses or facts, in particular in connection with allowances, unreported outside employment, harassment or other misconduct in the workplace”.
Again and again, anomalies in EU institutions make the headlines. Ironically, the then President of the European Court of Auditors, the German Klaus-Heiner Lehne, gave rise to doubts about his honesty in 2021. Allegedly, he received an allowance for the cost of an apartment at his office in Luxembourg, without spending much time there.
According to a report in the French newspaper Liberation, other Court of Auditors employees lived at the address. Lehne spoke of a shared flat.
At the beginning of 2022, EP Vice-President Rainer Wieland had to defend himself against accusations that he had had his office renovated. The CDU politician claimed that it was a test renovation. A new concept for the use of space and technology should be tested in the interests of Parliament.
According to Transparency International, the whole spectrum of EU policy and decision-making is “opaque” and “inexplicable” to citizens. The lobbyists in Brussels, on the other hand, move like fish in water.
Estimates of their number vary; more than 20,000 are likely to be out and about influencing political decisions. A “transparency register” is supposed to provide a better overview. So far, however, it has not been mandatory for all stakeholders. The register has existed for a little over ten years for the European Parliament and the EU Commission, and since last year it has also applied to the European Council. It contained more than 13,000 entries by the end of 2021.
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Meetings with lobbyists can be useful for political work in order to get feedback from reality. But they can also create impermissible proximity.
For von der Leyen’s commission, “Transparency” counted more than 14,000 meetings with lobbyists in mid-2022 since taking office. Between June 2019 and July 2022 there were more than 28,000 meetings between MEPs and stakeholders. According to “Transparency”, the greatest lobbying interest in von der Leyen’s first three years in office was in questions of the Green Deal on climate protection and the European internal market.
Contacts between the head of the Commission and the top management of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer attracted attention when the corona pandemic was about buying vaccines for the EU. EU investigator Kövesi was also interested in this topic.