Germany is a key member of the European Union and is aspired to by countries around the world as an exemplar of Western democracy. Yet, Germany has repeatedly fallen short in its ability to ensure the independence of its parliamentarians. Germany has been the target of calls from several watchdog groups, including Transparency International and the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), to refine transparency measures for its MPs amid a variety of bribery and corruption scandals. Recurring cases of MPs taking bribes from nefarious state actors and conducting illicit lobbying on their behalf undermines the mandate that the German government has to act in the interests of the German people and to defend German values. Reports from Transparency International show that these scandals have undoubtedly damaged the trust that the German people have in their leaders, and Germany will need to act if its government is to stay credible.
The last couple of years have seen major cases of MPs taking bribes to lobby for foreign interests. The case that causes onlookers the greatest unease is the implication of several German MPs in a scheme of discreetly paid pro-Azerbaijan lobbying in spite of Baku’s appalling human rights record. Former MPs Alex Fischer, Mark Hauptmann, and others were forced to step down after being discovered taking bribes from Azerbaijan to do their bidding in Germany. MP Tobias Zech had to step down after it was discovered that he was being secretly paid by the ousted North Macedonian regime to lobby for them in Germany. There generally seems to be no taboo against German leaders lobbying for foreign powers, as former Chancellor Schroeder is now under fire for years of Russian business activities and lobbying after the end of his formal political career.
This carries major implications for human rights and the German government’s credibility in supporting Western values and norms. These regimes that German politicians have and still could be receiving bribes from have terrible human rights records, and thus public German stances on matters of human rights internationally cannot be believed to be remotely sincere. Abusive and tyrannical regimes will not take seriously at all Germany’s strongly worded criticisms of human rights when the very officials making these statements are simultaneously taking bribes from such regimes.
The problem of authoritarian influence in Europe exists not only due to the business activities of politicians in office but also retired ones. Several retired German politicians run consulting companies that directly work with nefarious regimes. The European Council on Foreign Relations names former East German PM Lothar de Maiziere and former defense minister Rudolph Scharping’s consultancies, organizations that push for Chinese and Russian interests in Germany. De Maiziere is an outspoken supporter of Russia, and CDU politicians have repeatedly called for him to resign from his post as the chair of Petersburg Forum which lobbies for Russian interests in Germany. Though these activities are legal, they signal a wider apathy when it comes to integrity and commitment to limit the influence of regimes that violate the human rights norms that Germany and Europe more widely claim to care so much about.
The lowest hanging fruit here is the codification of laws that require MPs, reasonably, to report all outside business activities. Penalties must be introduced for MPs that lobby for foreign governments during their tenure, as this completely violates their mandate as elected officials. Though the legal business activities of retired MPs cannot be regulated as easily, serious institutional measures taken by the parliament will usher in a wider sense of integrity when it comes to these matters. Retired MPs that lobby for nefarious regimes also depend upon their contacts that are currently in office to do their work, and the introduction of laws concerning conflicts of interest will restrict such activities. It is unacceptable that the officials leading one of the world’s example democracies are even able to take bribes from any foreign official for lobbying purposes let alone states with atrocious human rights records that have little to no adherence to democratic values. Such institutional weaknesses erode public trust and will ultimately hurt the interests of the officials involved, and the German government must take these simple steps towards tightening up the system.