The worst corruption scandal in the history of the EU has rocked the European Parliament since Friday. Multiple arrests, parliamentary offices under police seal, and grainy photos of seized cash in ziplock bags have been met with righteous anger and condemnation from across the political spectrum.
At the opening of this week’s Parliamentary session, President Roberta Metsola denounced “the enemies of democracy” and “malign actors” who were able to allegedly infiltrate and influence European parliamentary processes. The European Commission is distancing itself and laying the blame squarely on the Parliament as senior MEPs seek to focus the scandal exclusively on the individuals under investigation.
But this is not about a few bad apples lured by malign actors with bags of cash. A culture of impunity breeds corruption. This scandal is uncovering deep, structural problems in EU policymaking and exposing the undue influence of powerful actors, be they repressive regimes or profit-hungry corporations.
How many lobbyists actually had access to Parliament in the last year? Which Commissioners met which lobby group, and when? And how many meetings between lobbyists, representatives of third countries, and representatives of the Council have been made public?
The Covid pandemic and energy crises have only worsened the state of transparency in the European Union. When the president of the European Commission can delete text messages with the CEO of Pfizer and does not have to retrieve them due to their “short-lived and ephemeral nature”; when sourcing LNG from Qatar is mentioned twice in the Commission's REPowerEU plan and visa-free access for Qatari nationals to the EU is proposed despite the country’s dire human rights record; and when the line between corruption and corporate capture are entirely blurred - how do we know who is really pulling the strings?
The Left is calling for a root and branch reform of the EU’s transparency and integrity systems. A parliamentary committee of inquiry must be established so that the European Parliament can investigate the flaws of its own rules and anti-corruption mechanisms. We desperately need an independent ethics authority for the European institutions with investigative and enforcement powers.
Existing rules on transparency, conflicts of interest and revolving doors in the European institutions clearly need to be reinforced in line with the demands of the European Ombudsman and transparency advocacy groups. The transparency register must be strengthened with oversight and tough sanctions for noncompliance. This should include compulsory reporting of all meetings between staff and external lobbies.
At a time when people in Europe are choosing between heating and eating, stories of MEPs with suitcases of cash are particularly jarring. This scandal has deeply wounded public trust in the EU - and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Business as usual ends now. This scandal must mark the beginning of a reckoning with the EU's toxic relationship with corporate lobbies. The fightback for democracy and against those who seek to undermine it means tackling a rigged system. Failure to do so could further weaken confidence between Brussels and the people we are here to represent : it is time to clean up so that ethics can prevail.