The European Commission's plans to establish an inter-institutional ethics body are unambitious and unsatisfactory, according to MEPs.
In a resolution adopted Wednesday in Strasbourg, European lawmakers called for a more ambitious proposal that would give investigating and sanctioning powers to the ethics panel, more protection for whistleblowers and stricter transparency rules for NGOs.
It criticises the Commission’s plans as “unsatisfactory and not ambitious enough, falling short of a genuine, independent ethics body.”
The ethics body was proposed by the Commission in the wake of the so-called Qatargate scandal in a bid to stamp out corruption and remedy the EU institutions’ tarnished reputation.
Centrist and left-leaning MEPs have been scathingly critical of the reform, claiming it is a paper tiger that would do little to tackle corruption.
“This body must have investigative powers and be independent. We cannot explain to the citizens that we are setting up a toothless body, even less so after the Qatargate scandal," said Stéphane Séjourné, leader of the centrist Renew Group in the European Parliament.
A watered-down text?
The proposal for an ethics body, unveiled in June by Vera Jourová, Commissioner for values in transparency, sets binding ethical standards for political officials working in the EU institutions, including rules on accepting gifts, trips paid by third countries, side-jobs and a cooling-off period after leaving office.
Prominent MEPs are currently being investigated for allegedly receiving hundreds of thousands of euros from Qatari and Moroccan officials in exchange for influencing the decisions of the European Parliament. The scandal unveiled holes in the EU institutions’ internal rules on ethical standards.
MEPs have also decried the slow pace of the Commission in presenting its plans, which the Parliament had previously called for in 2021.
The right-wing European People’s Party (EPP), the Parliament’s largest political group, backed out from the resolution. The group has expressed satisfaction with the Commission’s current proposal, with the group's leader Manfred Weber simply calling for the body to be renamed the Committee for Standards in Public Offices.
The EPP has previously welcomed the Commission's proposal but warned against "a Polish-style disciplinary chamber for MEPs" that would investigate and punish political officials.
The EPP's decision to withdraw from the resolution was criticised by other political groups on Wednesday.
“During negotiations, the EPP Group has persistently tried to water down ambition in the Parliament’s position on the EU ethics body only to end up not signing the resolution,” said Gaby Bischoff, S&D negotiator on the EU Ethics Body resolution.
“This is classic EPP; all bark and no bite. They claim to want high ethical standards in the EU but then fail to do anything to deliver it,” she added.
'Bags of cash under beds'
The resolution criticises the Commission’s plan to appoint only five independent ethics experts as ‘observers’ to the body, while full members would be representatives of the EU’s nine institutions. Critics believe this would undermine the body’s credibility and ambition.
Ethics experts have highlighted other shortcomings in the Commission’s plans. Many believe it is too easy for foreign actors to recruit former MEPs, and that the rules fail to address revolving doors, where former politicians are hired by private companies or lobbying forms.
"We’ve seen Commissioners walk straight from the offices of the Berlaymont into roles at multinationals and we’ve seen MEPs trying to hide bags of cash under their beds. It’s very clear we need a strong and independent ethics body to police these issues," said Daniel Freund, MEP for the Greens/EFA group.
Eva Kaili, the main suspect in the European Parliament’s corruption scandal who has since been evicted from her parliamentary group the Socialists and Democrats, returned to the Strasbourg plenary this week after being released from house arrest pending trial.
Marc Tarabella, who also faces accusations of corruption, participation in a criminal organisation and money laundering, also participated in plenary this week.
MEPs will vote on final recommendations for reforming the European Parliament’s rules on transparency, integrity, accountability and anti-corruption on Thursday, before entering negotiations with member states.