The scandal of alleged corruption and favor-buying that devastates the European Parliament has placed this institution, one of the keys to the vault of the institutional balance of the European Union and the highest expression of the democratic principle, in a very delicate situation without precedent. The suspicion that the governments of Qatar and Morocco have bribed members of the European Parliament – beginning with its charismatic vice-president, Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP attached to the Social Democrat group – was made public in the context of investigations carried out by Belgian police.
Indeed, the police seized a total of one and a half million euros stored in bags in the house of the alleged leader of the corrupt plot, the former socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, as well as in the home of the former vice president Eva Kaili, dismissed on December 13 by the European Parliament. Likewise, the police implicated his father and his partner and parliamentary assistant Francesco Giorgi, and the plot seems to extend to dozens of parliamentarians, the focus of police attention being the NGO Fight Impunity, founded three years ago by Panzeri, which concealed, After its declared objective of fighting against impunity for Human Rights violations, other less philanthropic purposes.
Consequences for the European Union
So far the facts, although the news does not stop happening and we are still far from knowing the true scope of this alleged plot. And these events have caused a veritable earthquake in the European Union whose epicenter is located in its core of democratic legitimacy, generating widespread confusion that must be responded to with serenity and firmness, since there are various fronts that are opening up and that deserve our attention.
Firstly, the European Parliament is severely wounded; Whether the wound heals properly will depend on the reaction of Parliament itself and of the rest of the institutions. Because, in effect, the prestige of a crucial institution in the legal and political building of the union is at stake. It is true that Parliament has traditionally been mistreated by partisan politics, turned into a graveyard for elephants or pushed back in the hierarchy of interests of the national parties. Nor has the citizenry fully been aware of the degree of importance that it possesses today, something to which perhaps the institution itself is no stranger, incapable of asserting its political weight before a citizenry that has coldly attended the European electoral appointments, being thus except for a slight increase in recent years, the level of participation in European elections has been gradually declining since the first elections that took place in 1979.
The Parliament of Europe
But the truth is that if there has been an institution that has been gaining power and weight in the political game of the European Union over the years, it has been Parliament. After the Treaty of Lisbon, its fundamental role, side by side with the Council in the ordinary legislative procedure, or in the budgetary procedure, to mention two paradigmatic examples, shows its relevance in decision-making on the European board. The Union, despite its deficiencies and deficits, has become the only subject of International Law with a supranational parliament with relevant decision-making functions that is directly elected by the citizens. For all these reasons, a Parliament undermined by the suspicion of widespread corruption, the trafficking of favours, and the interference of foreign countries largely foreign to the values advocated by article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, can suppose, if it is not it acts sensibly and decisively, a real depth charge on the waterline of the Union’s democratic legitimacy.
It is true that corruption is an old acquaintance of the European Union. Since the resignation of the Santer Commission in 1999 – the Group of Wise Men that investigated the irregularities exonerated the College of Commissioners of corrupt acts, although it censured its management and control mechanisms – until today the European Union has not escaped a phenomenon that did not knows borders. But it is the first time that Parliament has been substantially affected, and, in addition, the fact that third States carry out their lobbying activity in exchange for bribes due to Parliament’s own inaction – let us remember that it was the Belgian police who have uncovered the matter – further aggravates the situation. That foreign actors exercise mechanisms of soft power and deploy networks of influence to assert their interests is one thing. That MEPs receive money in exchange for praising Qatar’s labor legislation, or defending the autonomy statute of a Sahara under the sovereignty of Morocco is something very different.
Transparency and regulation
Lobbyist activity is an unavoidable reality in Brussels, and it already quantitatively exceeds that of Washington. For every one of the 705 MEPs there are 17 registered lobbyists in Brussels. Trying to prevent this activity would be to put doors to the field: the interaction between civil society and public power is not in itself undesirable, but it must be better regulated, and be more transparent. The Union has had a voluntary register of interest groups since 2011, which has been mandatory only for certain issues, such as the request for a card to access the European Parliament. In 2021, a tripartite inter-institutional agreement between Parliament, the Commission and the Council carried out important reforms on this register, among others making it mandatory. In any case, those activities carried out by authorities of third countries are excluded from the transparency register.
For this reason, both the president of the Commission and that of Parliament have promised to undertake a series of reforms to improve institutional transparency, including strict control of the contacts of deputies. It is a positive measure, but not enough. A firm change of direction is necessary that clearly shows the commitment to cleanliness of the European institutions, only in this way can the wounds inflicted by this shady matter be healed.