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EU parliament chief vows to tackle corruption in its ranks

The head of the European Parliament vowed Monday to impose new rules to tackle foreign corruption after MEPs were caught up in a graft scandal linked to Qatar and Morocco.

Speaker Roberta Metsola was opening a plenary session of the parliament in Strasbourg, as Belgian investigators continue to investigate alleged cash bribes to members.

She pledged to ensure “more transparency” and “accountability” — with a “first-step approach” that would include greater scrutiny of “those representing third countries and their interests”.

Her insistence that “this is the beginning, not the end” followed criticism from many MEPs and observers that her trailed measures did not go far enough to restore public credibility in the institution.

The parliament has been shaken by the scandal that broke open a month ago with the arrest of one of Metsola’s 14 vice-presidents after Belgian police raided homes and offices of several MEPs, former MEPs, parliamentary aides and heads of NGOs that dealt with lawmakers.

Searches were ordered as part of a Belgian prosecutors’ probe into graft in the European Parliament benefitting Qatar and Morocco. The police raids turned up 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in cash.

Qatar has denied having any role in any wrongdoing in the case. Morocco says it is the target of unjustified “media attacks” over the allegations.

One of Metsola’s vice-presidents, Greek MEP Eva Kaili, has also said through her lawyer that she knew nothing about cash found at her home.

She remains in custody with three other suspects: Kaili’s boyfriend Francesco Giorgi, who was a parliamentary aide; former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri; and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, head of an NGO suspected of making payments to MEPs.

The three male suspects are all Italian. According to a Belgian media report, Giorgi has made a confession.

All are charged in Belgium with “criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering”. Greece and Italy have launched their own investigations.

Metsola’s measures aim to “increase integrity, independence and accountability” in the parliament.

– Scepticism over the reforms –

She used the parliament’s first session of 2023 in the French city of Strasbourg to list proposed measures, that include more checks on who gets access to parliamentary premises and barring MEPs’ activities with non-EU countries “that could create confusion” with their official duties.

Lawmakers’ finances will be declared publicly and there will be “more training on whistleblowing,” she said.

Metsola said she hoped the changes would highlight the “crucial role played by MEPs in European decision making, and our role in making the lives of Europeans a little bit safer, a little bit fairer, a little bit more equal”.

But Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at the French business school HEC, voiced scepticism that “these few rules” would change the parliament’s political culture.

“We could have expected a more serious, more structural response than in the past,” he told AFP.

Some MEPs argued the time was ripe to create an EU authority to ensure transparency in all of the European Union’s institutions. Such an idea has been put forward by the European Commission in the past but never got off the ground.

The co-chair of the EU parliament’s Left grouping, Manon Aubry, said the initial allegations pointing to Qatar were “only the tip of the iceberg,” given the later allegations about Morocco.

She charged that not holding an immediate debate in the plenary session on the scandal risked further undermining the parliament’s credibility.

The alleged corruption case continues to roil the legislature.

At the beginning of January, at the request of Belgian prosecutors, the European Parliament started a procedure to lift the immunity of two other MEPs: a Belgian, Marc Tarabella, whose home was among those raided in December; and an Italian, Andrea Cozzolino.

That procedure is wending its way through the parliament.

Tarabella and another Belgian MEP, Maria Arena, have admitted to failing to declare expenses-paid trips to Qatar.

On Wednesday, the parliament is to vote on who will succeed Kaili in her vacant parliamentary vice-president’s chair.