After scandal-stained term, measures to clean up the European Parliament’s act watered down

A petition to stop sexual harassment in the European Parliament
A petition to stop sexual harassment in the European Parliament Copyright DAINA LE LARDIC/ European Union 2018 - Source : EP
Copyright DAINA LE LARDIC/ European Union 2018 - Source : EP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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As a mandate riddled with allegations of corruption, undue influence and misconduct among EU lawmakers draws to an end, the European Parliament has tried to push through reforms designed to bring the next chamber in line.

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But those reforms have been caught up in political infighting, resulting in measures many feel are too lax to tackle wrongdoing among elected officials.

Investigative platform Follow the Money recently highlighted the extent of that wrongdoing, estimating that a quarter of current Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been embroiled in some sort of scandal, ranging from sexual harassment to nepotism and bribe-taking.

Lawmakers voted Wednesday on a new anti-harassment training for elected members, a response to a growing body of evidence that bullies and sexual perpetrators have long gone unpunished in the parliament.

Then on Thursday, a new EU ethics watchdog tasked with policing the ethical standards of all EU institutions - seen as a response to the explosive cash-for-influence scandal involving Qatari, Moroccan and Mauritanian officials that emerged in late 2022 - was also put up to a vote.

But both of these proposals have been progressively watered down, making critics sceptical they will have any real impact on impunity at the heart of Europe’s democracy.

'Cheap' attempts to water down harassment crackdown

New rules rubber-stamped this week mean MEPs can now only become rapporteurs - the lead on key legislative files - or assume leadership roles such as vice-president or committee chair if they follow an anti-harassment training in the first six months of their mandate.

But the rules were amended by the chamber to remove any sanctions or consequences for MEPs who decide to skip, an initiative of the right-wing bloc, meaning it's likely to become an unenforceable paper tiger.

The lead MEP on the new rules, German socialist Gabriele Bischoff, told Euronews that the move is "a big step" for the parliament, but acknowledged the need for improvement.

"I am a bit disappointed that an amendment we had with clearer sanctions, what happens if you don't do it, didn't get a majority," Bischoff acknowledged. "It's not much to ask. It's a training in the afternoon, a couple of hours, and it supports the work you are doing."

MeToo campaigners at the parliament in Strasbourg this week, speaking to Euronews on condition of anonymity, said that despite recent efforts to tackle harassment, "not enough people care" at the parliament.

Those who denounce sexual misconduct in the parliament are just the tip of the iceberg
MeToo EU campaigner

"Those who denounce sexual misconduct in the parliament are just the tip of the iceberg," a campaigner said. "We need a system that works. We need trust. It's a cultural thing that will take a long time to change."

The MeToo EP movement surveyed some 1,000 parliament staffers between June and July last year and found that a staggering 48% of respondents had experienced psychological violence or harassment, with 16% saying they had suffered sexual violence or harassment.

Asked about the pervasive issue during the plenary session, EPP chairman Manfred Weber said that the "only real challenge in this moment of time" are the allegations made against German Green MEP Malte Gallée.

In early March, Gallée renounced his seat after being accused of behaving inappropriately towards his employees. The 30-year-old, then the chamber’s youngest member, denied the allegations. “I am convinced that I have done nothing wrong,” he said in a statement.

The Gallée affair follows a recent string of allegations of bullying and harassment against MEPs. At least seven lawmakers have faced investigations or sanctions related to psychological or physical misconduct since the beginning of 2023.

Bischoff censured the EPP and Weber's attempts at politicising the issue, saying it affects all political factions. 

"The EPP had a case with a German woman," Bischoff said in reference to Karolin Braunsberger-Reinhold, accused of harassing two employees after a leak by German newspaper BILD in April last year.

"It is not a topic to politicize or to play political games with. It's a serious question of health and safety at work," Bischoff added.

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Ethics body stripped of investigative and sanctioning powers

As the parliament sat the last time before June's elections on Thursday, it also approved a new EU ethics body, the institutions’ answer to the so-called Qatargate cash-for-influence scandal.

It will see eight EU institutions subscribe to binding ethical standards for political officials, including rules on accepting gifts, trips paid by third countries, side-jobs and a cooling-off period after leaving office.

Speaking to Euronews, rapporteur Daniel Freund of the German Greens described the watchdog as the "main response to this culture of impunity and the lack of transparency and ethical standards."

"But I think even with all that, we're still fairly naive when it comes to protecting the European Parliament, protecting European democracy from foreign undue influence," Freund acknowledged.

With no autonomous investigative or sanctioning powers, doubts over each institution's enforcement, and with the Council opting out of the agreement, analysts say the new body leaves too many issues unresolved.

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"While the body can issue written opinions at an institution’s request, these will be non-binding and non-adherence won’t be sanctioned," CEPS' Julia Pocze explained to Euronews.

"And with MEPs rejecting the idea of banning ‘paid side jobs’ in an effort to limit conflicts of interest, it’s clear that they're not willing to commit to any standards higher than the bare minimum," she added.

The ethics body will also be "just another player on an already crowded field," Pocze added, calling for a more streamlined approach "in the wake of serious corruption and maladministration allegations."

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