| Report

Is there a corruption weak spot in the European Parliament?

Since 2016 high-profile leaks around the world such as Panama Papers, Pandora Papers and FinCEN files have continually drawn attention to global money flows, fraud and tax evasion. Yet perhaps more significantly they have highlighted how kleptocrats corrupt governments and international officials around the world. Which leads us to wonder, what is the impact and the cost to our societies of such influence and corruption? But first we must understand the mechanisms by which corruptions operates and the scenarios in which it is allowed, or not, to flourish.

Corruption can come in many guises, from soft-power influence that can go virtually unnoticed to all but those watching the houses of democracy with eagle eyes, to more blatant manoeuvres such as financial support, donations and gifts to elected representatives and members of executive's hierarchies.

This issue affects countries across the world and within the boundaries of the EU, national governments and the European institutions are no exception. Indeed, there is concern that the risk of corruption is enhanced by a lack of instruments and rules to mitigate it. The European Institutions have sought to alleviate that fear and to show the transparent and accountable nature of its branches. The question is have they been successful?

When discussing corruption and the financial transparency of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), it is useful to distinguish two issues. On one hand is the misuse of funds received from the European Parliament for the purpose of executing a MEP’s official duties – while this is an issue of concern to the tax payer and for the general public, it does not come under the umbrella of what could be termed outside influence or corruption. Instead, the argument could reasonably be made that the deviation of such funds could in theory limit the potential influence of outside actors on Parliamentarians. On the other hand, monies received from third parties is of major concern and as an issue shows no signs of dissipating.

On top of these considerations is the “grey zone” of corruption, this refers to interactions that on paper are not traceable, in the way the above mentioned investigations were. It refers to the ebb and flow of standard parliamentary workings, where meetings take place, conversations are had and information is exchanged in predominantly informal settings on the fringes of official Parliament business. To map this network of exchanges would be near impossible, given the number of people that move into, out of and around Parliament especially during its plenary sitting once a month in Strasbourg.

On the latter of the two issues mentioned above, according to the European Parliament code of conduct for members [#1] if an MEP is remunerated for services not directly linked to carrying out the functions of an MEP, then this must be reported as income. Members are required to submit a detailed declaration of their financial interests as per the EP Rules of Procedure [#2]. This declaration also contains any other conflict of interest that MEPs are required to declare, such as membership of boards or companies, or other paid activities such as lecturing or giving expert advice. This information is freely available to view for all members, on their EP page under the declarations section, and it can make for some interesting reading.

Additionally, as part of the code of conduct MEPs are also encouraged to adopt a practice of only taking meetings with interested parties (lobbies, NGOs, think tanks, trade associations and so forth), that are part of the EU Transparency Register [#3]. The register is a tool that allows citizens to see what interests are being represented at Union level (Parliament, Council and Commission) and on whose behalf, and it also shows how much money is involved in supporting those interests. MEPs are also invited to publish all scheduled meetings and MEPs with specific legislative responsibilities such as rapporteurs, shadow rapporteurs and committee chairs are required to publish such details.

A number of things should be noted here, firstly that these instances refer only to scheduled meetings, and as detailed previously there are a plethora of opportunities during the plenary session when unscheduled and informal encounters may, and do, take place. Secondly, within the rules of procedure (as can be viewed in Annex I [#4]),  legislators may decide to voluntarily declare any meetings taken with outside interests, ie not included on the register,  who have been consulted on matters pertaining to the subject of the report.  Which, in essence, means that there is a wide scope for meetings to go unscheduled and undeclared.

Finally and not to be overlooked, these obligations apply only to the key legislators on a report and not the members of a committee who will vote on that report and its amendments before its sent to plenary. At committee level, the margins are far narrower when it comes to voting in favour or against a report or its amendments, those who more intimate with the key steps of the legislative process are well aware of this, and are also aware of how to apply pressure to any weak points that are likely to give way to outside influence, either by convincing, cajoling or co-opting.

So the question remains, to what extent are these institutions, and in particular the European Parliament, transparent? And perhaps more pertinent and intriguing still, what happens outside of the watchful eye of the keepers of codes of conduct and transparency registers?