EU watchdog seeks powers, funds for lawmaker probe body

Jan 29, 2023, 12:47 PM | Updated: Jan 30, 2023, 3:06 am
European lawmakers vote to elect a vice-president of European Parliament, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023 ...

European lawmakers vote to elect a vice-president of European Parliament, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023 in Strasbourg, eastern France. Luxembourg's Marc Angel replaces a disgraced former parliament vice president, after a key suspect in the cash-for-influence corruption scandal rocking the assembly made a plea bargain with prosecutors, raising the prospect that more names might surface. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

(AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

BRUSSELS (AP) — A European Parliament body supervising anti-lobbying and lawmakers’ conduct rules must be given the power and money to launch independent investigations into abuses in the wake of a major corruption scandal, the European Ombudsman’s office warned Monday.

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, an independent watchdog monitoring administrative shortfalls in the European Union on behalf of the bloc’s 27 member countries, said that “diligent and independent oversight and enforcement of existing ethics rules is critical.”

After a series of raids across Brussels in December, Belgian prosecutors charged four people with corruption, money laundering and membership in a criminal organisation for allegedly taking money from Qatari and Moroccan officials to influence decision-making at the European Union’s parliament.

They include an EU lawmaker, who was an assembly vice president until the charges came to light, a parliamentary assistant, a former lawmaker and the head of a charity group. Prosecutors want the parliamentary immunity of two other lawmakers lifted, suggesting that they too might be charged.

Early this month, Parliament President Roberta Metsola unveiled plans to toughen controls on all lobbyists and publicly list any meetings that lawmakers might have with them. Under the plans, spot checks would be introduced on lawmakers’ financial disclosures and links to any country outside the 27-nation EU.

The new rules would also prevent former lawmakers from lobbying on behalf of businesses or governments soon after they leave office and would make publicly available the names of current members who break assembly rules.

But critics say the plan lacks the teeth needed to change the lax behaviour of parliamentarians who routinely ignore their code of conduct. The alleged abuses were also carried out over several months and only picked up by Belgium’s intelligence services.

Currently, the code of conduct is overseen by a five-member Advisory Committee working under Metsola’s orders.

In a letter to Metsola, O’Reilly said that addressing shortfalls “implies strengthening the independence of the Committee, granting it powers proactively to monitor, investigate and ensure compliance with ethics rules, and providing it with sufficient resources.”

To help restore public confidence shaken by the EU’s biggest corruption scandal, O’Reilly said, “greater transparency” about the committee’s work is also needed. She added that more detailed declarations of outside interests by lawmakers are needed.

Qatar and Morocco vehemently deny any involvement in the corruption scandal, but the assembly has halted work on all Qatar-related files until an inquiry is completed.

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EU watchdog seeks powers, funds for lawmaker probe body