DOMINIC SANDBROOK: The sewers of sleaze running through the EU’s institutions are an embarrassment… and a disgrace – the surprising thing about its Qatar scandal is anybody is pretending to be surprised
Until a few days ago, there were few more striking advertisements for European democracy than the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Eva Kaili.
All her life the statuesque 44-year-old had known nothing but success. The youngest member of the city council in Thessaloniki, the youngest candidate for the Greek Parliament, a news presenter on Greece’s oldest private TV channel, a star of the centre-left Pasok party . . . nothing seemed beyond her.
At the beginning of this year, Kaili reached a new peak. Already a member of the European Parliament, she was elected as one of its Vice Presidents. She was the golden girl of Brussels, hailed as ‘alluring’, ‘bold’ and ‘outspoken’, at ease on both the floor of a nightclub and the debating chamber.
And then, this week, it all came crashing down, as Belgian prosecutors blew open an alleged conspiracy by World Cup hosts Qatar to buy influence at the European Parliament. In a series of raids, they seized €150,000 in Kaili’s flat, a further €600,000 in the home of the former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Pancheri, and ‘several hundred thousand euros’ in a suitcase in a Brussels hotel.
Until a few days ago, there were few more striking advertisements for European democracy than the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Eva Kaili
Belgian Federal Police found £1.3m of euro bank notes as part of the corruption investigation
In a twist too glorious for fiction, the suitcase allegedly belonged to Kaili’s father, who had reportedly tried to flee the local Sofitel with it after being tipped off about the raids. As for his glamorous daughter, she has been arrested and charged with ‘participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption’. Kaili has denied the allegations, and people are innocent until they are proven guilty.
But when you look back at Kaili’s record, you can see why there have long been suspicions. Only last month, she had the gall to tell the European Parliament that critics of Qatar’s World Cup were ‘bullying’ the oil-rich Arab state.
She even described it as a ‘frontrunner in labour rights’, which would come as news to thousands of poorly treated migrant workers. For the EU all this is intensely embarrassing, because the scandal goes much wider than one or two people. Police have seized the computers of ten parliamentary assistants, while the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, insists that ‘European democracy is under attack’ from foreign influence peddlers.
Yesterday, MEPs delayed a vote on granting Qatari citizens visa-free travel to the EU, for fear the process has been corrupted. Meanwhile, Belgian police took the dramatic step of releasing a photo of the incriminating cash, heaped up in piles on the ground.
You could hardly want a more damning symbol of treachery, dishonesty and greed.
Ms Kaili’s office in the European Parliament building in Strasbourg has been sealed by investigators as part of the probe into money laundering and corruption
Ms Kaili, pictured with her partner Franscesco Giorgi. Both have been linked to the corruption scandal relating to Qatar
The surprising thing, though, is that anybody is pretending to be surprised. For decades rumours have circulated about the grotesque corruption of many EU institutions, suggesting the Kaili fiasco is no more than the tip of the iceberg.
Discussing the corruption of the EU is very unfashionable in some circles, since unreconstructed Remainers refuse to accept that any Continental institutions might be less than perfect.
Even though I voted Remain, I’ve long been appalled by the EU’s enthusiasm for back-scratching, old-fashioned financial sleaze. Much as we moan about our own MPs, they are underpaid compared with their European counterparts. Once elected to the EU’s ludicrous talking shop, you take home €112,635 a year, plus a handsome pension for life.
You get an additional allowance of almost €350 a day, as well as €4,778 a month to pay for computers and telephones.
The European taxpayer covers two-thirds of all your medical bills, and funds your business-class flights. And when you lose your seat or step down, the EU hands you a month’s salary for every year you were in office.
Not bad, eh? But not quite enough, allegedly, for Eva Kaili. In some ways a kind of unacknowledged corruption is built into the principle of the European Parliament, which decamps once a month to Strasbourg, for no other reason than to flatter the egos and line the pockets of the French.
The Strasbourg arrangement costs European taxpayers €100 million a year. Any sane organisation would get rid of it immediately, but such is not the EU’s style.
The saga of the annual EU accounts tells a similar story. For many years its auditors refused to sign off the accounts, because they were riddled with errors and suspicions of fraud.
In the last set, according to the European Court of Auditors, almost two-thirds of the audited expenditure was considered ‘high risk’, with 15 clear cases of suspected fraud.
For decades rumours have circulated about the grotesque corruption of many EU institutions, suggesting the Kaili fiasco is no more than the tip of the iceberg
Only last month, Kaili had the gall to tell the European Parliament that critics of Qatar’s World Cup were ‘bullying’ the oil-rich Arab state
Year after year the allegations have piled up. I think of the time the entire European Commission had to resign in 1999, after a damning report exposed the institution as rotten with nepotism.
Then there was the Galvin Report in 2006, when an internal auditor uncovered appalling errors in the expenses of more than 160 MEPs — only to have his report covered up and hidden in a locked room.
And then there was the saga of the Austrian MEP Ernst Strasser, who was forced to resign in 2011 and convicted of taking some €100,000 a year from big-business lobbyists in return for amending laws in the European Parliament.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many defenders of the European ideal are losing patience with the sewers of sleaze that run through EU institutions.
For the Italian political scientist Alberto Alemanno, who has long criticised the European Parliament’s ‘ethical insouciance’, the Kaili affair is the latest symptom of a deep-rooted sickness. ‘Whatever the outcome,’ he told the website Politico Europe, it has revealed an ‘obvious truth. Money does buy influence in the EU’.
The former Dutch MEP Michiel van Hulten, who runs the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International EU, goes even further. The Qatar affair, he says, represents a ‘bribery and corruption scandal of epic proportions’, laying bare a ‘culture of impunity’ at the European Parliament.
Over the years, van Hulten explains, MEPs have become accustomed to a non-existent culture of accountability and a complete lack of ‘ethics oversight’. To put it bluntly, they can do whatever they like — including, if the Belgian police are right, strolling around with suitcases of Qatari money.
Former Dutch MEP Michiel van Hulten, who runs the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International EU, said the investigation represents a ‘bribery and corruption scandal of epic proportions’, laying bare a ‘culture of impunity’ at the European Parliament
Of course no political system can ever be immune from corruption. Our own government has been besieged by allegations about the procurement of PPE equipment during the pandemic, although I can’t help noticing nothing concrete has ever been proved.
Even so, it’s worth noting that in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Index, which ranks countries from high to low, Britain is 11th, comfortably ahead of EU member states such as Austria, France, Spain and Italy.
For all the hysterical self-flagellation of the ultra-Remainers, Westminster politics is relatively clean. But where would the European Parliament rank, if it were a country?
Then there was the Galvin Report in 2006, when an internal auditor uncovered appalling errors in the expenses of more than 160 MEPs — only to have his report covered up and hidden in a locked room
Down in the non-league places with Syria and South Sudan? Put it this way: it wouldn’t be in the Premier League. And the Qatar scandal may be just the beginning.
French MEP Raphael Glucksmann believes other foreign actors — Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan — have handed over bribes to swing votes in the European Parliament. Without ‘extremely profound reforms’, he warns, the EU will remain easy prey for malign outsiders with bags of cash.
So will the European Parliament act? Will we see the ‘extremely profound reforms’? I think we all know the answer to that. What a betrayal; what an embarrassment; what a disgrace for European democracy.
Source: Read Full Article