Lobbyism has grown to become highly influential in the policy-making process of the European Union. In order to promote “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society” (Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union), this activity is allowed both at the national and the European level. Therefore, representatives of groups and organizations regularly meet with several Members of the European Parliament to bring their own perspectives, promote their interests, and influence policies. Through this process, the Parliament can improve its subject knowledge, gain more information on the topic and take decisions more coherent with citizens’ needs. However, strict rules of conduct are in place to avoid any wrongdoing that might fall into corruption. Every lobbying activity is limited to accredited representatives and has to be reported in detail in the Transparency Register, which is accessible to everyone to make it as open as possible. Still, recent events suggest how further improvement of this control mechanism might be required.
What is Qatargate?
On December 9th, acting accordingly to an ongoing investigation, Belgian police raided several offices in Brussels and arrested multiple high-profile individuals. The most relevant of these were Eva Kaili, a Greek Member of the European Parliament that was also serving as Vice President of the Parliament, and Antonio Panzieri, a former Italian MEP. Kaili’s partner and Kaili’s father were also detained. During these police operations, more than 1.5 million € were seized in Belgium, Greece, and Italy. Additional searches were conducted in the following days involving other Members of the Parliament and political staffers. Charges were related to bribery to promote Qatari interests within the Parliament and fraud at the expense of the European Budget. Additional investigations are analyzing the possible involvement of other countries, such as Morocco. Apparently, Panzieri and his parliamentary staffer, Kaili’s husband, managed to remain influential even after the former’s failed re-election thanks to the creation of the NGO “Fight Impunity”. It was founded in 2019 and, thanks to their connections within the Parliament, it became one of the major human rights organizations to operate in Brussels. If those allegations are confirmed, they would undoubtedly be part of the biggest corruption scandal faced by the European Union in the 21st century.
Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament
Source: European Parliament
The European political scene was extremely shocked by what happened. The President of the Parliament, Roberta Metsola, acknowledged how “European democracy is under attack” and gave full support to ongoing police investigations. She was followed by the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, claiming those events to be very serious and suggesting the creation of a new independent ethics body to regain citizens' confidence in European Institutions. European Council President Charles Michel also highlighted the problem with European credibility after this scandal. In the following days, Kaili was removed from her role as Vice President of the Parliament and expelled from the Socialists and Democrats group. Furthermore, they suspended all the proceedings related to Qatar, including a visa-waiver program and a transport agreement giving Qatar Airways unlimited access to the EU market. They were already perceived as a country with an aggressive lobbying policy with foreign governments to improve its international profile. Judges’ allegations suggest how these events are included in this scheme and raise concerns about possible additional illegal activities. Qatar attracted many critics for the inhumane conditions of workers in the construction of football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. Still, Kaili in November delivered a passionate speech in the European Parliament just after meeting with the Qatari Minister of Labor. On that occasion, she praised Qatar's reforms and stated that the country is a frontrunner in labor rights. Other suspicions were raised concerning voting behavior and negotiations of MEPs involved in the investigation regarding various topics.
The scandal hit the Union at a particularly delicate moment for two main reasons. Firstly, after the invasion of Ukraine, Russia took revenge for European imposed sanctions by cutting its gas supply to the EU. To maintain continuous energy supplies and avoid an excessive increase in gas prices, European countries had to rely on increased furniture from alternative nations, like Qatar. It follows that, at the moment, taking too harsh measures to react to the scandal might backfire as Qatar could leverage by cutting its supplies. Additionally, Euroscepticism grew exponentially in the last decade. A significant part of the population perceives European Institutions as composed of a corrupt elite that operates not to promote citizens’ well-being but to favor big corporations and wealthy actors. Indeed, this scandal does not help to fight this perception; instead, it gives evidence to sustain it. In 2024 new elections for the Parliament will be held, a moment that will shape its future. If European institutions will not be able to regain the population’s support and restore their credibility, Eurosceptic parties will find a more favorable scenario to improve their presence in the Parliament. Due to increased instability, shaping a robust and more integrated Union will be more complex. To avoid this situation, swift and decisive actions must be taken to fully cooperate with justice to punish guilty individuals involved in the scandal. At the same time, new measures to control ethics and limit any possible misconduct, such as the one proposed by Von Der Leyen, should be implemented as soon as possible. Only if Europe learns from this scandal, it will be possible to restore its credibility and show commitment to its founding values.