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Ethics board will stamp out corruption in Brussels, says European Commission Vice-President

Ethics board will stamp out corruption in Brussels, says European Commission Vice-President
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Sandor Zsiros
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The EU is making fresh efforts to increase transparency and its own credibility following the recent 'Qatargate' corruption scandal. On the Global Conversation, Euronews spoke with Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission, to talk about the institution's new anti-corruption measures.

Euronews

Vera Jourova, thanks very much for being on Euronews. Six months have passed since the biggest since one of the biggest corruption scandals of the history of the European Union. And according to the latest polls the majority of the Europeans, in fact, 60% of them are unhappy about how the EU is dealing with corruption. Are you surprised? 

Věra Jourová

It does not surprise me, but at the same time, it gives me another impulse to do something about that. And it doesn't matter where the scandal appeared. It was one of the institutions, probably the failure more of individual people than of the system. But what can the citizens think? Well-paid politicians, they have undeserved privileges. We don't know which standards and whether there is some ethics. You know, too many questions and too little answers. So that's why we came up with the anti-corruption package, which also covers EU institutions. And today I presented the first-ever European ethics body, which would cover all key EU institutions. 

Euronews

Let's talk about this new ethics body because it will set future standards for all of the EU institutions. But NGOs and, MEPs are demanding that the control should be not connected to the European Union but should be independent. Why is it not happening? 

Věra Jourová

Well, the ethics body is filling in the gap because just imagine each of the institutions have some internal structure that should do the job. The ethics body should not replace these institutional arrangements. There are people who should go after disciplinary breaches and should sanction these cases. So the ethics body will fill in the gaps, the roof above all the institutions, and work on the unified standards will then reflect in the work of each institution. And why not be independent? Well, I think that it's important that the ethics body will be composed of the people who know the work and the role of each institution. That's why I proposed something which will be very practical. There will be ten people sitting around the table. I speak about the political level, the vice presidents of each institution or some other high-level official. And there will be five independent experts invited to work together with the representatives of the institutions. I want the ethics body to be meaningful, to be practical, and to be transparent so the standards which the ethics body will agree on will be known to the public. Referring to your first question, what people can think about us. I think that they should know the rules regarding trips, gifts, declarations of assets, and what the politicians do after the mandate. Well, I think that the people have the right to see clear standards.

Euronews

For example, these new standards will prevent in the future commission director general from taking free flights, free hotel rooms paid by foreign actors like Qatar.

Věra Jourová

Honestly, I don't understand how this can be happening, because either I am on a business trip and then it has to be blessed by the institution and paid by the institution I work for. Or it is a private trip and then I pay it myself. I don't see any space for anything else. And I think that this is exactly what the ethics body should clarify and we should agree on it. 

Euronews

Do you think also the 700 MEPs are in line to push the standards higher?

Věra Jourová

If you ask all of them, they will tell you, yes. I spoke to many members of the Parliament. Of course the Parliament is a special institution: there are directly elected people. There is always a discussion about the freedom of the mandate or about their immunities. This is very fair to discuss all these things. But at the same time, there should be high enough equal standards for everyone in the Parliament. We see quite different opinions from different political clubs and I am ready to discuss with all. 

Euronews

And how about the investigations and the sanctions for these ethical rules? 

Věra Jourová

Well, it has to remain in the institutions which have a strong legal basis to do that. I know it sounds too legalistic, but I have to recall that this ethics body will be established on the basis of the agreement, and it's not foreseen in the treaty, and it's not going to be established on the basis of the law. Once you work for such a body established by the law, you are authorized to look into private documents and to different kinds of materials. You are authorized to inquire the people and you are authorized to sanction the people. And it really requires the strongest possible legal authorization. And this is why the ethics body will not have. 

Euronews

We are one year ahead of the next European Parliament elections. Are you afraid that foreign actors will try to influence the campaign and they might actually derail the campaign ahead of the parliament elections, for example, with fake news campaigns or disinformation?

Věra Jourová

I do believe they will not win because we do everything to protect the elections against hidden manipulation and against different kinds of interference. But that for sure, there will be a strong influence, and that it will be a big pressure from different hostile actors to interfere into the electoral processes. That's why we are already alerting the member States, which have the obligation to organize the elections, to somehow fortify the systems also against cyber attacks, but also against coordinated campaigns using disinformation. 

Euronews

To fight foreign influence the European Commission is also proposing a new package called Defence of Democracy. But NGOs were protesting against this legislation, they said it's very similar to the Russian Foreign Agents Act. So after this criticism, will you amend this legislation, to satisfy NGO's? 

Věra Jourová

The criticism was based on the lack of information about what we plan, and I don't criticize anyone. I think that it's mainly on us to inform all who might feel affected by that what we plan. What we plan is for the high level of transparency about the financial flows into Europe. And I think that it's far from Georgian law or even American law or Australian law, which is the criminal justice piece of law. No labeling, no foreign agents, no stigmatizing. We even want to embed into the law the safeguard against the possible abuse from the side of some member states: not to go beyond the requests or requirements of the law. But you asked about the process also. We admitted that we need more time for two things: For the intense consultations with all who raised voices and who expressed concerns, especially the NGOs, I will simplify that. But many, many others also from the member state official places we heard a lot of question marks. I will use this summer for consultations on the basis of the already very precise text so that we know what we speak about. The second thing, we need to do is to try to collect data, which will give us more certainty about how big the problem is. Collecting such data is not an easy thing because it's mainly in the possession of the member states, secret services and security agencies. So we are now exploring the way how to get reliable data. So we will do two things over the summer and then in autumn, we will come back to that. Because I am convinced we need such a law. And if not, we will be the only democratic space that doesn't have a law which at least wants to increase transparency and give us a chance to know who is paid by third countries' governments. This is the last thing I want to say on the substance because also there was a criticism that all the money coming from abroad. No, it will be about the money paid by third countries' governments and state organizations. 

Euronews

Do you think social media platforms, big social media platforms, are doing enough to fight disinformation because the current European system is on a voluntary basis and Twitter is leaving even that system?

Věra Jourová

Well, soon we will have the Digital Services Act in force and it will be a legally binding heavyweight legislation that seeks to increase the responsibility of the platforms. And it's a reaction of something which we saw evolving over the years that the platforms are grabbing too much power and are reluctant to take relevant responsibility. Before that and parallel with that, we have the code of practice against disinformation, which indeed is a voluntary agreement. At this moment we have 44 signatories. We have all the big platforms except Twitter. We can do a lot with it, but of course, it has some gaps still. What I want to change: first of all, to address pro-Russia and pro-Kremlin disinformation, because this is a clear-cut case, the word propaganda has to be removed and we are in the information war and so there should be no compromise. Second, we want the platforms to consistently moderate and invest in fact-checking. It cannot be done only in English or German. It has to be done in all member states languages. And the tricky thing is that the more you go to the east of Europe, the bigger the pressure from Russian propaganda appears. So we want them to invest in fact, checking In these countries. We see big influence of Russian propaganda on Slovakia, on Bulgarian public opinion. We see increased pressures on German communities and especially using some domestic proxies. And this is a new thing when the Russian propaganda is being taken over by the extremist parties in the EU. This is a dangerous new stage. So better moderation. The third thing that we want from the platforms is to enable the researchers.to have better access to data. We need the researchers to analyze the situation. When I say we, we are the rules makers because I would like the internet and social media to remain the free zone for free speech. So also my concern is not to overshoot with the rules which we are taking but to come with proportionate, necessary measures. We need to know what's happening and the researchers should help us with a serious sort of analysis. The first thing and this is a new agenda, and I asked on Monday the platforms to consider is the new development in generative artificial intelligence. And here again, the code can be a quick vehicle, a quick response.

Journalist • Thomas Blade

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