EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly on Monday called for an urgent overhaul of the EU’s ethics system following the Qatar corruption scandal that rocked the European Parliament.
In an interview with POLITICO, O’Reilly said the failure of “political champions” to promote a functioning European ethics system over the years has allowed scandals to proliferate. And she lambasted EU institutions for failing to deal with the threat of outside influence peddlers trying to corrupt the bloc.
The EU, she said, “is a huge global player, and of course everything from tech companies to states outside the EU will try to influence it.”
Yet, as so often happens, “it looks like it’s going to take a scandal to change things,” she said. “While incremental changes have occurred and are welcome, there is never a big leap.”
O’Reilly’s office was set up in 1995 to investigate complaints about maladministration within EU institutions. But like other institutions that form the EU’s piecemeal approach to regulation and accountability, it has limited sanctioning powers.
As a result, for O’Reilly, the scandal seemed in some ways predictable.
“To some extent, we could have written the script,” she said. “Everyone is horrified, everyone will now do their best to stamp it out and put things in place to make sure things like this can’t happen when the truth is – let it be me or other civil society actors, media, other politicians have been saying for years — that there are problems in the ethical system of the EU administration.
O’Reilly also took aim at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who promised transparency would be a central part of her mandate when she became head of the EU executive in 2019.
Referring to von der Leyen’s plan for a new body of ethics, first described more than three years ago, O’Reilly said: “What we could be heading for is something toothless, something something that might sit there passively, wait for the complaints to come in.”
What the agency really needs, O’Reilly explained, are investigative and sanctioning powers.
EU Commissioner Věra Jourová, who deals with transparency and the rule of law, told POLITICO earlier this month that the proposal would likely be a “thin layer”, consisting of an “advisory committee” without the ability to investigate or enforce the rules in EU institutions.
Von der Leyen said on Monday she would like to see the current rules applying to the European Commission extended to other EU institutions.
O’Reilly also noted that von der Leyen made the initial commitment to create an ethics body around the time she was seeking parliamentary approval to become Commission President.
“She was trying to engage with groups, naturally – I mean, it’s politics – that would have had […] that kind of transparency, ethical issues on the agenda,” she said.
The Qatar influence scandal escalated on Monday with new searches of offices in the European Parliament. The computer equipment belonging to 10 members of Parliament staff has been frozen “to prevent the disappearance of data necessary for the investigation”, federal prosecutors said.
In total, prosecutors seized €600,000 in cash from a suspect’s home, “several hundred thousand” euros from a suitcase in a Brussels hotel room and €150,000 from an MP’s apartment European Union, which would be Greek MEP Eva Kali. The investigation has been going on for four months.
O’Reilly also said the revelations would make it harder for the EU to deal with countries like Poland and Hungary on rule of law issues, calling it a “gift” for people with an “anti- -EU”.
Sarah Wheaton and Cristina Gonzalez contributed reporting.