A costly friendship

A costly friendship

Like all scandals that live up to their name, QatarGate has made waves far beyond the European bubble.

Less than a year after the affair, MEPs have embarked on a major overhaul of the rules governing the transparency of their institution, the guarantor of Europe’s democratic legitimacy.

Meeting in a plenary session in the French city of Strasbourg last week, MEPs approved by 505 votes to 93, with 52 abstentions, a revision of the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure with the view of strengthening integrity, independence and accountability of the Parliament.

The effectiveness of the rules adopted will be the yardstick by which the institution’s democratic progress will be judged in the years to come.

Framing out-of-control relations

The text on the integrity, transparency and accountability of the European Parliament, adopted in plenary on 7 September on the basis of the 14-point reform plan presented by President Roberta Metsola at the beginning of 2023, contains a long list of new restrictive measures applicable to MEPs.

These include the obligation to declare their resources before taking office and at the end of their term of office, a measure already in place for French MEPs in particular. MEPs will have to declare all meetings with representatives of outside interests and refuse to accept gifts worth more than €150. Pantouflage and contacts with former colleagues who have become lobbyists are also banned.

Another important aspect of the new rules is a response to the Qatar-gate controversy by regulating the activities of “unofficial groups”, also known as “friendship groups”.

These informal clubs, “sometimes sponsored by lobbyists or foreign governments, are not official organisations of the European Parliament”, the institution itself says on its website.

At present, their number is not formally recorded and their activities are not documented. But the MEPs who belong to them see them as a way of organising meetings, forging links and learning more about a country beyond the committee rooms and meetings tinged with official speeches.

In December 2022, the Qatarargate scandal involving 4 MEPs broke just days before the liberalisation of European visa policy for citizens of the Gulf state. The Friendship Group is still suspected of having been a channel for corruption, if not outright influence peddling.

The affair revealed the extent of the influence of foreign powers in the European Union. It has highlighted the crucial role of MEPs in political decision-making, in stark contrast to the lack of control over relations between parliamentarians and third countries.

Public mistrust of elected representatives

Suitcases full of cash, names splashed across the front pages of major Belgian newspapers and the lure of the World Cup in Qatar will have succeeded in making the European Parliament the talk of the town. These images highlight the Union’s shortcomings and failures.

Some 60% of European citizens are not satisfied with the Union’s efforts to combat corruption. This is 12 points more than in 2019, at the start of the parliamentary term.

With their reform, elected representatives hope to reconnect with European citizens a few months before they go to the polls.

The European elections attract very few European citizens. In the 2019 elections, the turnout peaked at 50.66%, although this is the highest turnout since 1994.

The reform, whether carried out with conviction or reluctance in the corridors of the Parliament, is intended to demonstrate the attachment of elected representatives to civic values and democracy.

“Today’s vote must not be the end of the story,” insists Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the Green negotiator on this issue. “There is still a lot to be done in terms of sanctions, procedures for dealing with infringements and monitoring the outside remuneration of certain MEPs”.