In this latest episode of the Global Conversation, Euronews speaks with EU Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, about corruption, transparency, and trust in European institutions.
As the European Union looks to restore trust in its institutions after last year's shocking corruption scandals, Euronews sat down with European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, who overviews transparency and ethics issues related to the EU, to discuss transparency, intelligence and what it all means for how we perceive Europe.
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: Emily O'Reilly Thanks for being with us. Lately, we saw the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the European Union, MEPs and assistants were caught running with big money bags. Have you been surprised by this scandal?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "Yes and no. I mean, the scandal itself is quite shocking and it is being played out in the Belgian courts, and all of that, we need to be mindful of that. But I suppose anybody watching it would have been quite shocked by it because the graphics were quite dramatic. We saw literally euro notes, we saw suitcases. So everybody [saw that] a sort of cartoon-like idea of corruption was served up to them. So that was quite dramatic. But I suppose when you look at the Parliament in the way that a lot of the rules and codes, that are supposed to protect parliament against corruption, even though there are a lot of them, they're not really enforced and monitored. So I suppose in a way this was a sort of a scandal or an accident waiting to happen."
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: This organisation or this network has been running in the parliament for a quite long time. How is it possible that inside the EU, they have been not detected, but they have been detected only by the Belgian police?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "My understanding is it was the intelligence services of another country that gave the information to the Belgian authorities. So that's what happened there. One of the European Union's anti-fraud agencies, which is called OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office), they've always had a problem using their powers in relation to the Parliament. So for example, if OLAF suspects that something wrong is being done by somebody in another institution, in another EU agency, they have the right to go into those institutions, to go into people's offices, to look at their computers, to do everything. Almost like police people. But the Parliament has always refused what OLAF sees as its legal right to do that. So the question is, if OLAF had had the right to go in and search MEPs offices if there was a suspicion that something wrong was been doing, might the scandal have been detected before it was detected by the Belgian authorities? But we don't know. It's just speculation."
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: Now, the European Parliament is trying to get things right to wrap up this scandal. Do you think they are doing enough?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "I was observing what was happening in December in the parliament when the scandal broke and everybody was saying the right things. Everybody was saying, this is terrible. We have to fix it. We have to fix it. But now we're a few months on and we're still waiting to see precisely what fixing it means."
Sándor Zsiros: Let's talk about the big picture, what this corruption scandal means for the whole of the European Union, because this is obviously eroding the trust towards the institutions. What do you think about the effect in the long run?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "Well, I think that you're right. I mean, trust is very important. And, you know, it is said that you cannot have political legitimacy without moral authority. You can't have political legitimacy either unless the people trust in you.
"And of course, as you know, we're now in Brussels. Brussels, for most people, is an idea. And it's an idea that is very far away. So they don't understand it in the same way as they would their own member state governments, administrations and so on. And therefore, they're almost predestined to distrust it because they don't understand it. So, therefore, it's quite fragile, the trust that there is, that can be there between the European Union and its citizens. And therefore, when the administration does things, when the EU does things which damage that trust, it can have, you know, almost a shattering effect on people's belief in the EU.
"You have to draw the dots between the small little incidents that you might not think are particularly important and the bigger picture, the way that they lead to or can lead to distrust by the citizens on the entire European Union project. And also it's used by people who are sceptical of the EU and people who are hostile to the EU. So it's very important that the EU acts to the highest possible ethical standards in order to protect its political legitimacy."
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: There was another scandal when the former transport chief of the European Commission flew nine times to Qatar. And these trips have been paid for by the Qatari government. At the time when, you know, the European Union was negotiating with Qatar about the airline industry, was this a transparency issue for you or a lobbying issue? Any wrongdoings here?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "You know, it was extraordinary because it wasn't just the European Union that was developing this open skies policy, which was going to benefit directly Qatar Air, the people who were giving this gentleman the free flights to Qatar, but it was his department, his directorate general, that was devising the regulations. So there was a clear conflict of interest. But when the commission spokesperson was asked who decided whether there was a conflict of interest or not, it was revealed that he did. So he asked himself if there was a conflict of interest, and obviously he said no, or whatever he said and he went off and flew to Qatar."
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, also dealt in private text messages with the CEO of Pfizer about the vaccine procurement. And those text messages were not archived, were not published. So how do you see these issues in the future, the issue of dealing differently with those kind of messages?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "We're all now so used to using these WhatsApps and Snapchats and everything else to send our messages. And while that creates a lot of efficiencies and so on, the transparency and accountability trail when public administrations are using these methods of communicating and politicians indeed, that's problematic. So the question is, how do we capture that?"
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: Let's talk about money because hundreds of billions of taxpayers' money are flowing towards the recovery and resilience facilities. Also, the European Union is supporting the defence of Ukraine by billions. Are the European taxpayers in a position to, you know, follow up on where this money is flowing?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "Well, I think they should be. I don't think they are completely yet. I mean, we've done quite a lot of work on the funds that were the post-covid funds of 700 billion, whatever the figure was. And all we are saying is that, look, this money is being distributed around the Member States. Obviously, whenever there's money of that amount circling around the place, there are possibilities of corruption. There are possibilities that it's not going to be well used and so on. So let the citizens also be the watchdogs of this money."
Sándor Zsiros, Euronews: Your organisation just published the annual report for last year. When you add up all of these developments, you know, transparency, lobbying, ethical problems, Qatargate. Do you think it was a turning point in how we see the European Union?
Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman: "In relation to Qatargate, it's an interesting story because it was very easy to understand and, you know, it was dramatic and all of that and we had the pictures of the money in the suitcases. But at the same time, I think it also recognises the growing importance of the European Union. And certainly when you have the polarisation of the United States, then you have Brexit and what's happening in the UK, you have Russia, you have China, you have whatever, there's never been a greater need for Europe to assert itself globally. But to do that, it has to have a moral authority. And I suppose that feeds into a lot of the issues that you've just been discussing."