Qatargate: “It is time the European Parliament delivers on reforms”
Mr. Freund, this week, the European Parliament again voted for reforms on transparency and accountability in the wake of the Qatargate scandal. Are you satisfied?
Overall, yes. This could be a game changer, provided of course that the reforms are actually implemented. Unfortunately, that has not happened in the past. We merely had declarations of intent, but no real change. We now quickly need to amend Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, the implementing rules and answer questions such as access to Parliament for lobbyists. And Parliament’s Bureau must also apply these decisions in practice. One thing is clear: We have a broad majority in Parliament for real reforms – even if we have seen in the past that this does not automatically mean that things will be implemented one-to-one.
Some, like the French Left MEP Manon Aubry, have criticised that talk of reforms is just hot air and that measures are being implemented half-heartedly, or not at all. Why is that?
It is true, so far, the rules have not been changed yet. But things are moving in the right direction now.
What are the concrete measures?
We want lobby meetings to be disclosed. Not only meetings of the MEPs, but also those of the staff. We must also allow certain exceptions and define them precisely, for example when it comes to human rights activists, whom we want to protect and must not put in danger by disclosure. This must be done sensibly and not in a hurry. But the criticism that relatively little has happened so far is right. We have also agreed on some things and have large majorities, but we are still a long way from reaching our goal and must now take things up a notch. The scandal is already more than two months old. It’s time we started delivering.
Many conservatives are focusing on NGOs, although they are certainly not the main problem when it comes to corruption. The EPP group even goes as far as to propose that EU funds for NGOs be stopped immediately when there is a suspicion of corruption. Of course, the rules must apply equally to all, but at this stage to focus on NGOs is a distraction from the real issues.
The resolution adopted last week states that the European Parliament recorded 26 violations of the rules already in force, but that these were not sanctioned. What is the point of stricter rules if the existing ones are not applied?
So far, a culture of impunity has prevailed in the European Parliament. This is because we have a system of self-regulation. In other words, MEPs control each other. The rules are not enforced and violations are not sanctioned. That is the real issue.
Who is responsible?
Under the current system, it is only the President who can impose sanctions. And that has not happened so far, despite the fact that many members have demonstrably not declared outside paid activities, gifts or trips abroad. Already, a person who is found to have violated the rules of conduct can be sanctioned and even fined up to €10000. People can be removed as committee chairs or stripped from their roles as rapporteurs for certain legislative procedures. But that is theory. In practice it just doesn’t happen! That is why I proposed years ago that these rules should be independently monitored and enforced. The plenary agreed to this, but since then nothing has happened. We have been waiting for more than one and a half years for the European Commission to make a concrete proposal so that we can enter into negotiations. That should finally come in March.
Will the ethics committee only be able to make recommendations for sanctions or will it also be able to make binding decisions?
That is the core of the debate. At the time, I proposed that sanctions should also be imposed independently, but that did not get a majority. The compromise we agreed on is that sanctions should be proposed by the independent body and that this should also be made public. The decision, however, would remain with the President of Parliament. But they would of course be under considerable pressure to follow the recommendation.
After the Qatargate scandal, many MEPs suddenly reported paid trips abroad, even though the deadline had long passed already. Has this sudden awakening surprised you?
Indeed, many colleagues suddenly remembered that they had been invited by Qatar or by whoever. In the last month, we probably received more declarations than in the last two years put together. This raises the question of why people are sanctioned who have not bought a bus ticket, but not those MEPs who declare their trips or gifts two years later.
What about a possible ban on side jobs for MEPs?
We have now decided that secondary employment for lobbying activities or organisations should indeed be banned, as well as where potential conflicts of interest could arise. It is not quite clear to me yet what exactly is meant by this. How to make something like that legally secure is something we have to discuss now. I am not sure whether a complete ban on side activities is expedient. There are side jobs where the risk of a conflict of interest is fairly low.
And what about all-expenses-paid trips abroad?
In future, permission to do so should be obtained in advance, e.g. by a chair of a relevant committee. We do not want to prohibit MPs from being invited. If someone is invited to a conference or a TV show and hotel accommodation is provided there, I think that’s fine. It is different when dictators foot the bill for lavish trips to their countries, or when trips are offered to countries with which the EU is negotiating a free trade agreement.
The interview with the German MEP was conducted by Michael Thaidigsmann.
Daniel Freund (born 1984 in Aachen, Germany) has been a member of the European Parliament since 2019. Previously, he served as head of Advocacy for EU Integrity at the Brussels office of Transparency International.
Freund is a member of the European Green Party group, the Constitutional Committee and the Budgetary Control Committee in the European Parliament. He focuses on issues such as transparency, democracy, the fight against corruption and the future of the EU.