Drawing from anti-corruption research, Riccardo D’Emidio outlines how the ‘Qatargate’ scandal in the EU Parliament challenges traditional approaches of corruption analysis pushing the boundaries of how corruption is understood, and the measures needed to tackle it.
The European Parliament has been rocked by what has been defined by analysts and journalists alike as the ‘the most egregious’ corruption scandal in its history. Over the past month, media headlines have reported on the alleged implication in the scandal of (now) former Vice President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, her partner Francesco Giorgi, and former Italian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Antonio Panzeri.
The Belgian police seized bags of cash worth more than a million euros in the house of the MEP and former MEP as part of an investigation into suspicions of corruption to the benefit of Qatar.
While the contours of the investigations continue to broaden, the Belgian federal prosecutor is investigating allegations of participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering. The scandal also involves NGOs and trade unions – used to ‘move money around’ – and it seems not circumscribed to Qatar, but could also implicate Moroccan authorities.
The scandal brings to the fore many of the unresolved issues and misconceptions characterising the study of corruption and integrity, placing the spotlight on the murky waters of corruption, conflict of interest, lobbying, foreign interference and the role of the state.
Corruption research has traditionally focused on the nation state as the main locus or unit of analysis of corruption and anti-corruption measures. However, the Qatargate scandal sheds light on the international dimensions of corruption, involving a third country allegedly trying to pay their way to shape EU policy, unduly interfering in the work of a unique supra-national parliament with 705 elected members belonging to different countries, parties and political cultures.
This is not an irrelevant detail since political cultures matter: if there is one thing that 30 years of anti-corruption research and policy has taught us, it is that context matters. Different measures work in different settings. On this occasion, the European Parliament relied on the collaboration of five national security agencies and the work of the Belgian police to uncover the criminal organization.
This suggests that as corruption evolves, crossing borders and besetting new institutions, anti-corruption measures should follow suit. EU institutions will need to find their own tailor made solutions, which will inevitably need to take into account the blurring boundaries between the public and the private, and between political and economic powers.
In this regard, former MEP Antonio Panzeri together with some of the actors allegedly involved, fit the description of Janine Wedel’s ‘flexians’ or ‘institutional nomads’. These are elite players who leverage their influence and power by moving in and out of multiple roles crossing political and economic playing fields – often beyond public scrutiny.
The alleged involvement of members and former members of the European Parliament shatters the misguided assumption that corruption is only an issue in the Global South or in contexts of limited state capacity.
Nonetheless, a couple of days after the story broke on Belgian media, the European Parliament President, Roberta Metsola, opened the plenary session with these words: “The European Parliament is under attack. European democracy is under attack. Our way of open, free, democratic societies are under attack. The enemies of democracy for whom the very existence of this Parliament is a threat, will stop at nothing…”.
This speech was defined as a ‘political communication masterpiece’ yet it dangerously depicts corruption as an external insidious attack from ‘autocratic third countries’. This reinforces the notion that corruption creeps into Europe from elsewhere.
Most importantly, this framing precludes any reflection on the structural factors that enabled corruption to take place in the first place. Chief among these factors is the role of lobbying within EU institutions and EU policy making.
Last year The Economist reported that 25,000 lobbyists with a combined annual budget conservatively estimated at more than €3bn seek to influence EU policy, dwarfing the sums seized by the Belgian police.
Approximately 7,500 lobbyists are accredited with the European Parliament, meaning that they are regularly able to meet with MEPs who are – for now – under no obligation to register the meetings in the EU Transparency Register.
From an ethical standpoint, a provocative and unresolved question remains: what difference is there between €600,000 stacked in suitcases and €600,000 spent in expensive trips to exotic destinations, luxury hotels, fancy dinners and events?
While the answer to this question is not an easy one, the Resolution adopted by the European Parliament outlines some important steps for transparency and accountability in European institutions.
Among other demands, the text proposes the introduction of cooling off periods for former MEPs, the strengthening of the Transparency Register and the alignment of its whistleblower measures to the EU Whistleblowing Directive. Most importantly it calls on the EU Commission – which holds exclusive legislative initiative – to set up an independent ethics body overseeing all EU institutions (for more information on this see here).
While these are important steppingstones towards curbing corruption, they might not be enough to instill integrity within EU institutions. Way too often in both research and practice integrity is dealt with implicitly, assuming that this will emerge simply by tightening checks and balances and reducing discretion.
The debate in academia on corruption control vis-à-vis integrity building is a lively one (see here and here) and it could prompt the EU to go beyond renewed regulatory frameworks and drive forward the promotion of pro-integrity values and practices. This could potentially tackle what Transparency International called ‘the culture of impunity’ in the European Parliament
In the past thirty years, the fight against corruption might not have registered ground-breaking successes, nonetheless it has acquired a substantive amount of knowledge and lessons learnt. It is of paramount importance, that in times of crisis such as this one, EU institutions tap into existing knowledge without falling back on outdated – yet intuitively sound – measures.
Conversely, the Qatargate case pushes the boundaries of anti-corruption research both in terms of grasping the multiple dimensions and nuances of corruption, as well as the possible anti-corruption measures to be put in place.
By Riccardo D’Emidio, PhD Candidate, Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex.
The views expressed in this piece are his own.