There will be more corruption scandals in the EU if we do not establish a set of ethical rules

Guest post by Morten Koch – When Greek MEP Eva Kaili was arrested by the Belgian police on 9 December 2022 for corruption and a direct link to Qatar, it triggered significant reactions of condemnation and contempt from the European Parliament. The president of the parliament, Roberta Metsola, called it “an attack” on the parliament and European democracy.

At the center of the case is a former member of parliament, Pier Antonio Panzeri. After leaving parliament after three terms, he founded an NGO called End Impunity, which, according to the indictment, has acted as an intermediary between the parties involved.

The discovery of large amounts of cash and a constant leak of information from the investigation contributed to a dramatization of the case in the major European media. Exemplified by the arrest of Kaili’s father in a hotel room with a suitcase full of euro notes, which was then displayed on the police twitter account , as a trophy for a job well done and widely disseminated by the media.

Although the arrests are an expression of effective police work, the case risks undermining the public’s trust in the parliament and the European project, especially in countries with large populist movements and EU-critical parties. The accusations were therefore quickly followed up with demands for better legislation and more regulation by politicians.

Suitcase full of money

Seen from the outside, the case looks like a caricature of what we understand by corruption, but the parliament’s reaction clearly illustrates the consequences it can have for individuals, institutions and society. The exchange of cash for services seems almost amateurish. It could be an expression of lack of experience, or they have felt confident not to be discovered.

The investigation has been going on for over a year and now includes several countries and individuals, including Morocco and at least two other parliamentarians. Whether the case is a single connected incident or an expression of a more systematic challenge in the EU is yet to be seen, but based on what we know, we can draw some key points.

First, the case shows that money is a strong motivating factor for corruption. And that corrupt actions work through exchanges between actors who have a purpose in their actions and use positions, insights and resources to achieve individual goals. In the current case, money for positive publicity. The case also shows that there is not only a giver and a receiver in the corrupt act. In this case, the case involves a number of people who know each other, among other things, through their work with North Africa and the Middle East, and where some are even intimately connected.

Secondly, the case is a clear expression of an illegal act. When we normally talk about corruption taking place in a crossroads between the illegal and the immoral, this is an example of the clearly criminal, and all parties involved must have known it. The surprising thing is that they have not tried to hide the payments, for example through hidden transfers in tax havens, cryptocurrency or the like. Maybe they were sure not to be discovered? And maybe there was a common understanding of an accepted action, even if it was illegal?

Third, their choice of payment method is unusual as it physically links the accused state to the illegal act. Not since Azerbaijan was accused in 2018 of corrupting members of the Council of Europe, including by paying in caviar, has a state been investigated in an attempt to influence attitudes and mitigate criticism of the regime.

That states outside the EU and other actors try to influence politicians, and that there are different attitudes and ideologies present in parliament, is completely normal. After all, not all politicians who change their position are exposed to corruption. But we must also recognize that their position and the pressure they are exposed to creates a gray zone where political interests and personal ambitions flow together with their work as popular representatives. So the question is, where are the limits of contact and dialogue – legally and morally?

Lack of transparency

Fourth, Parliament reacted with shock. But the problems of lack of transparency, monitoring and control have been present for many decades and there has been no interest from the governing bodies of Parliament to take action until now.

The president of the parliament, Roberta Metsola, has presented 14 points to ensure better regulation and strengthening of transparency. They include, among other things, rules for side jobs, waiting periods when changing jobs, improving whistleblowing systems, registration when members meet representatives from other countries on an equal footing with lobbying organisations, and the abolition of so-called ‘unofficial friendship groups’ with external states, requirements for a statement of assets, which only eight out of 705 members did in 2022 and more.

The establishment of an independent ethical control and monitoring unit with the authority to launch investigations has not (yet) been proposed – the measures thus far rest on internal control and voluntariness.

These are good suggestions and a first step towards better and more ethical practice. But they wouldn’t have changed much in this case where all parties involved knew their actions were illegal. The question is whether better legislation and more control alone will prevent similar cases in the future – whether they will have a preventive effect.

Rules and regulations are important. They can become a common guideline for the parliament. However, until that happens, the case clearly shows that there is no common understanding of correct and incorrect behavior in Parliament. Nor does it appear that there are any general norms of ethical practice in Parliament.

Rules of practice

The big challenge will therefore be to build a common understanding of the risk of corruption in the system, especially in the gray areas where the rules are negotiated and interpreted. And in an organization where there are many ways of seeing the world and where there are different experiences with corruption.

It raises questions about when a practice is problematic and where the boundaries are. As an example, the new measures surprisingly do not include new rules for receiving gifts, which among some members is seen as a natural part of the work.

Fifthly, the investigation shows that the risk of corruption is built into the system as long as there are no rules for politicians’ practices. It was the publication of the case and the sustained media attention that created the breeding ground for change, not lack of knowledge of the problems.

Just as important as the establishment of an ethical set of rules and active monitoring is to ensure the opportunities for citizens and the media to gain insight into the political decision-making processes. Ultimately, parliamentarians are accountable to the electorate, and this should require knowledge sharing.

The most important thing we can learn from the case, however, has nothing to do with either the investigation or the political aftermath in the EU. Rather, it is about the state’s involvement in corruption. That repressive regimes will enter into agreements with European politicians to mitigate criticism and promote their reputation and status in the EU clearly shows that human rights and democratic values ​​matter. It is a central point of reference for the actions of states on the global stage. We must stick to promoting that.

Morten Koch Andersen is a senior researcher in corruption and human rights at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute

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