Opinion | The EU’s lurid ‘Qatargate’ scandal hurts the cause of democracy

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If Tom Wolfe had ever written a novel about the European Union, it might have looked something like “Qatargate,” one of the biggest graft scandals in the bloc’s recent history. The details of the case are as byzantine as they are tawdry, and they underscore an urgent need to overhaul corruption laws within the EU’s own institutions.

The EU is one of the few bulwarks of democracy in a time of geopolitical upheaval — especially on its own doorstep, with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Anything that weakens the bloc’s credibility weakens the appeal of the democratic values ​​the EU upholds — values ​​that should be defended against enemies without and within.

As the story has unfolded, over $1 million in cash has been discovered across Brussels in private apartments, offices and hotel rooms. Belgian authorities have arrested four people — including a former European Parliament vice president and a former member of parliament — on charges of accepting bribes from Qatari representatives to bolster the country’s reputation in the midst of scrutiny during the World Cup of its human rights record. This was a gift for the ages for the EU’s many critics.

Qatar denies any involvement, and those arrested are still awaiting trial. One of them, Eva Kaili, a Greek politician and the former parliamentary vice president at the center of the scandal, has admitted she instructed her father to collect a suitcase of cash from her own apartment, her lawyer said. Her father was arrested in the Brussels Sofitel on Dec. 9. He was subsequently released, but Ms. Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, who is another EU lawmaker, and his former boss Pier Antonio Panzeri have both also been arrested. Meanwhile, Greek authorities have asked their counterparts in Panama, a famous tax haven, to investigate whether Qatari officials might have transferred money into accounts owned by Ms. Kaili and members of her family.

The scandal is dealing a devastating blow not only to the credibility of the European Parliament but also to the entire EU, especially with regard to the bloc’s commitments to fight corruption among its member states, notably Hungary. Unsurprisingly, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister and an avatar of antidemocratic sentiment within the bloc, wasted no time in seizing upon the Qatargate scandal to cry hypocrisy on the part of Brussels. “And then they said the EP is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary,” Mr. Orban tweeted.

EU leaders are rightly embarrassed. “We first need to learn lessons from this and come up with a package of measures to avoid such things — to prevent corruption in the future,” Charles Michel, the European Council president, the body composed of the respective presidents of the bloc’s 27 members states, told Politico. But for years, the EU has paid lip service to fighting internal corruption. Now is the time for concrete actions and public accountability, especially on the issues of lobbying and transparency.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has proposed setting up a new formal body that would monitor ethics and integrity standards across the bloc, enforcing “the same rules across all European institutions,” a reform that seems as self-evident as it is surprising that it’s not already in effect.

The EU already has a Transparency Register, but one to which “all interest representatives are invited to register voluntarily if they pursue activities designed to influence policymaking.” It recently opened OLAF, an anti-fraud office designed to monitor corruption within the bloc’s institutions and a welcome, necessary addition to the Brussels bureaucracy. But OLAF has primarily responded to the Qatargate scandal by dodging responsibility. “There is no link between the issues investigated by OLAF and the issues under investigation in the ‘Qatargate,’ as the matter has been dubbed by many,” Ville Itälä, the group’s director general, said in a statement.

In any case, the policies in place have significant loopholes that should be immediately closed. Members of the European Parliament are not always obliged to declare their meetings with the representatives of foreign countries, and they often can still work as consultants while they serve in parliament. Qatargate should put an end to such obvious conflicts of interest, which should never have been allowed in the first place.

This scandal comes at a turbulent time for the EU, as it faces the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war is an act of aggression against Ukraine’s territorial integrity but also against the mode of governance of a bloc Ukraine seeks to join. The EU cannot allow that system of governance to appear to be as incompetent, corrupt and out-of-touch as its enemies claim it is.

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