Qatargate, and what’s good for the goose

If Roberta Metsola wants to be credible about her efforts to stamp out corruption, her fight should be to change the rules and make MEPs fully accountable to an independent oversight mechanism

Apart from its legislative work, the European Parliament often acts as a moral and ethical watchdog on governments of the member states.

So it comes as no surprise that MEPs today face backlash over the corruption scandal involving Eva Kaili, the now former vice president of the EP.

Kaili was expelled from her role as vice president by EP President Roberta Metsola after she was arrested and charged with corruption, money laundering and participating in organised crime, in a probe started by Belgian police.

Kaili and several EP staffers, and members of the NGO ‘Fight Impunity’ – the irony cannot be more conspicuous – allegedly received money from World Cup host Qatar to speak favourably of the country in the face of international criticism of its poor human and worker rights record.

Hundreds of thousands of euros in hard cash have been seized by police in Belgium and Greece; offices at the European Parliament have been sealed by the police and computers were confiscated as part of the investigation.

In scathing remarks to the European Parliament last week, Metsola described the scandal as the actions of “autocratic countries” that have weaponised unionists, staffers and MEPs in a direct affront to democracy.

She vowed an internal investigation and the EP’s full cooperation with investigators. However, the big question is whether this is just a case of a few rotten apples, or one where the whole crate is rotten. The latter appears to be more the case.

For all its lessons on morality and rule of law – Malta would know a thing or two about this – the European Parliament is partly to blame for what is being dubbed as ‘Qatargate’.

For years MEPs, and indeed all European institutions, have been reluctant to tighten expenditure rules and introduce proper oversight mechanisms.

Lax oversight of members’ financial activities, and the fact that states were able to contact MEPs and staffers – without ever logging the encounters in a public register – are a recipe for corruption. Lobbying rules are lax and full of loopholes that allow too much space for voluntary action.

But it’s not just limited to MEPs. The revolving door of senior European officials who head off to serve private interests after a stint at the European Commission or Council is another area that requires tougher oversight.

It is these lacunas that made Qatargate possible in the first place.

And while cases involving bags of hard cash, as seems to be the case now, are not commonplace, influence can be bought through the financing of exotic trips and other freebies, making the problem more pervasive than it seems.

Taking short-term, tough action to address the current issue at hand is of the utmost importance; but on its own, it will not suffice.

When delegations from the EP came to Malta to assess the state of the rule of law in the wake of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, they rightly concluded that police prosecutions on their own were not enough, unless long-term measures are taken to end impunity and empower the forces of law and order to act without fear or favour.

What MEPs were looking for was political commitment to change the systems that grew defective over time. This required amendments to our laws and structures, and the introduction of control mechanisms.

But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander; and with the European Parliament now tainted by its own massive corruption scandal, the time has come for tougher controls and independent scrutiny of all European institutions.

If Roberta Metsola wants to be credible about her efforts to stamp out corruption, her fight should be to change the rules and make MEPs fully accountable to an independent oversight mechanism.

The EP’s credibility is at stake. Firefighting is well and good for the time being, but it will need to turn into a root-and-branch overhaul of the entire system; otherwise, people across the continent will simply lift their hand and refuse to ‘shake hands’, as they stand up to impunity.