EU standards chief calls for tougher lobbying rules amid Qatar scandal – POLITICO

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly on Monday called for an urgent overhaul of the EU’s ethics system in the wake of the Qatar corruption scandal that has rocked the European Parliament.

In an interview with POLITICO, O’Reilly said the failure of “political champions” to push a functioning EU ethics system over the years had allowed scandals to proliferate. And she blasted EU institutions for not confronting the threat of outside influence peddlers trying to corrupt the bloc.

The EU, she said, “is a huge global player, and of course, everything from tech companies to states outside the EU is going to try and influence it.”

Yet as so often happens, “it seems that it’s going to take a scandal for things to change,” she said. “While incremental change has happened and is to be welcomed, there’s never the big leap.”

O’Reilly’s office was formed in 1995 to probe complaints about maladministration within EU institutions. But like other institutions that form the EU’s piecemeal approach to regulation and accountability, it has limited sanctioning powers.

As a result, for O’Reilly, the scandal seemed in some ways predictable.

“To a certain extent, one could have written the script,” she said. “Everybody’s horrified, everybody is now going to do their best to stamp it out and put things in place to make sure that things like this can’t happen when the truth is — whether myself or other civil society, actors, media, other politicians have been saying for years — that there are problems in the ethical system of the EU administration.”

O’Reilly also took aim at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who pledged that transparency would be a core part of her mandate when she became head of the EU’s executive branch in 2019.  

Referring to von der Leyen’s plan for a new ethics body, first outlined over three years ago, O’Reilly said: “What we might be inching towards is something with no teeth, something that will possibly sit there passively, wait for complaints to come in.”

What the body really needs, O’Reilly argued, is investigatory and sanctions powers.

EU Commissioner Věra Jourová, who handles transparency and rule of law, told POLITICO earlier this month that the proposal would likely be a “thin layer,” consisting of an “advisory board” without the ability to investigate or enforce rules across EU institutions.

Von der Leyen said Monday that she would like to see the current rules applying to the European Commission extended to other EU institutions.

O’Reilly also noted that von der Leyen made the initial commitment to establish an ethics body around the time she was looking to get the Parliament’s sign-off to become Commission president.

“She was trying to engage with groups, understandably — I mean, this is politics — that would have had […] those sorts of transparency, ethical issues on the agenda,” she said.

The Qatar influence scandal escalated on Monday with fresh raids of offices in the European Parliament. IT equipment belonging to 10 members of the Parliament’s staff has been frozen “to prevent the disappearance of data necessary for the investigation,” federal prosecutors said.

In total, prosecutors have seized €600,000 in cash at a suspect’s home, “several hundred thousand” euros in a suitcase in a Brussels hotel room and €150,000 in the flat belonging to an MEP, believed to be Greek MEP Eva Kali. The investigation has been ongoing for four months.

O’Reilly also said the revelations will make it more difficult for the EU to deal with countries like Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law issues, calling it a “gift” to people with an “anti-EU agenda.”

Sarah Wheaton and Cristina Gonzalez contributed reporting.

Leave a Reply