Eva Kaili: What led to the MEP corruption scandal at the European Parliament?

Access to the comments Comments
By Joshua Askew
Parliament members vote on a policy directive, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.
Parliament members vote on a policy directive, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France.   -   Copyright  Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

Brussels is awash with scandal. 

In December, Greek MEP Eva Kaili was arrested by Belgian police following a damaging corruption probe at the European Parliament.

But what allowed this to happen? Was it down to failings within the European legislator? Or is something else at play?

Euronews took a look. 

So what happened at the European Parliament?

Kaili, a 44-year-old socialist MEP, is accused of accepting large sums of money to peddle influence for Qatar at the European Parliament. 

Police swoops on MEPs are a rare thing. They are typically shielded from the eyes of the law because of parliamentary immunity, a right conferred upon MEPs which prevents them from being sued, arrested or investigated.

Yet, under EU rules, Kaili could not claim this protection as she was caught red-handed, with reports suggesting police found her with large "bags of cash". 

Like in most parliaments around the world, every MEP is given parliamentary immunity, and there are many reasons why it is necessary. 

Parliamentary immunity means MEPs can carry out their jobs, express opinions and vote freely, without fear of arbitrary arrest or political persecution, explained European Parliament spokeswoman Yasmina Yakimova. 

ERIC VIDAL/AFP
Eva Kaili speaks during a meeting in Brussels.ERIC VIDAL/AFP

"It's about guaranteeing that parliament can function," she added. "It's not something that allows them to break the law more easily."

For example, immunity can protect European lawmakers from being sued for something they say in parliament, which could restrict their freedom of speech or cow them into silence on certain political issues.  

Can parliamentary immunity be taken away?

MEPs can be stripped of their immunity, but only through a process. 

A national authority -- such as the police -- must first request that the European Parliament lifts an MEP's immunity. This is then referred to Legal Affairs Committee, which examines the case and recommends a decision to the parliament, which votes on whether to accept it or not. 

Deliberations by the 28-member committee are made behind closed doors, due to confidentially concerns, and the accused MEP is allowed to present evidence and defend themselves. 

Lawmakers volunteer to serve on the committee, which reflects the political composition of parliament. 

"If it's purely a political thing, then we do not lift immunity," Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, told Euronews. 

"But if someone was speeding, caught with drugs, or an MEP tries to steal something, it will be lifted so national authorities can investigate and put them in jail."

Even if immunity is taken away, MEPs do not lose their seat and can remain in the parliament. 

On 15 December, the European Chief Prosecutor requested that Kaili and fellow MEP Maria Spyraki's immunity be lifted over suspicions of committing fraud. It is unclear if this is linked to the Qatar corruption allegations. 

She remains an MEP, but was ousted from her position as Vice President at the parliament.

Kaili has the right to defend herself and stop parliamentary immunity from being lifted, though it is unclear if she will do so. 

Did parliamentary immunity play a role in the Kaili scandal?

Investigators are still establishing the facts around Kaili's alleged corruption. 

"So far, I have no indication that [parliamentary immunity was involved]," said Freund. "I mean, she might have thought she was untouchable." 

But the Green MEP underlined that immunity had not hampered the investigation or prevented her arrest, adding that he was "not aware of any case where parliamentary immunity had hindered [a] prosecution." 

Others pointed to deeper issues within the European parliament that help fuel dodgy dealings.  

"What allows MEPs to feel that they can engage in potentially dubious or criminal behaviour is not so much immunity, but the culture of impunity that exists in the European Parliament," said Nick Aiossa, Deputy Director of the Transparency Initiative. 

He pointed to "extremely low or non-existent" anti-corruption rules and regimes in Brussels, alongside a "self-policing system for ethical violations". 

In their code of conduct, MEPs must follow principles of integrity, honesty, accountability and others, while acting solely in the public interest.

Though issues around immunity face "checks and balances", Aiossa claimed there was "very little transparency" when it came to investigating ethical violations. 

An advisory committee looks into ethical breaches at the European Parliament. All of its five members are chosen by the Parliament's president, who has the final say over whether an MEP is sanctioned. 

Out of 24 possible cases during parliament's last term, not a single MEP was sanctioned, Aiossa told Euronews, adding that even if they were sanctioned "the worst" thing that could happen is that their daily allowance is stopped for 30 days. 

"We are of the opinion that that sanction regime is insufficient to act as a deterrent to prevent ethical violations," he added.

MEPs are entitled to claim a daily allowance of €338 to cover hotel bills, meals and other expenses when they are in Brussels, Strasbourg or on official business. 

"Ethical regimes are so substandard, the allowance schemes for MEPs don't have anti-fraud measures in place ... the whistle-blowing rules when it comes to staff members in the parliament are sub-par," said Aiossa. 

What damage has the Eva Kaili scandal done to the European Parliament?

The scandal has been bruising for Brussels. 

"I think people are very afraid," said Yakimova. "Everyone is working very hard to ... make sure that people know what the parliament does [that] it's really changing people's lives for the better."

"There's going to be some damage control." 

She was also worried about the impact of the scandal on those who were "already sceptical" towards the European Parliament and the EU as a whole, believing this would give them "more arguments in their favour".

Hungary's nationalist leader Viktor Orban cited the scandal on Twitter, claiming it showed the hypocrisy of Brussels. 

Orban is currently in a spat with the European Commission, which froze EU funding for Hungary over rule of law concerns.

Though recognising that there were "serious systemic issues" in Hungary, Aiossa said MEPs were "notorious for having a terrible double standard" when it comes to corruption.

"MEPs can be the biggest champions of anti-corruption and ethics within [the EU's] 27 member states," he said. "So they have given perhaps a false impression that they also have those same standards applied to them in the European Parliament, and they do not."

What reforms could come out of the Eva Kaili scandal?

The scandal has prompted a loud chorus of calls for reform. 

"Like the president said, we're only going to come out stronger and make sure that the procedures really work," said Yakimova. "There's probably going to be some big changes". 

So far the discussion has focused on tightening rules around transparency and behaviour, alongside putting in place tougher sanctions and better systems of accountability, rather than parliamentary immunity. 

"But if there is any indication that reforms are necessary on immunity as well, then I am sure that will come out," said Freund. 

Still, there were concerns about whether Brussels would seize the nettle and reform. 

"Historically [the] champions of calling for the strictest anti-corruption and integrity measures for 27 member states have always been the biggest opponents of adopting those own rules and measures or when it comes to themselves," said Aiossa. "It's a lack of political will."

"All I can do is witness this in sheer disappointment," he added. "What they don't understand is that these kinds of scandals and smaller ones in the past, do a huge amount of reputational damage to the institution and injure the trust of citizens.

"And they still fail to do anything about it."