Brussels is full of scandals.
last friday Greek MEP Eva Kaili was arrested by Belgian police following a damaging corruption investigation in the European Parliament.
But what allowed this to happen? Was it due to shortcomings within the European legislator? Euronews took a look.
So what happened in the European Parliament?
Kaili, a 44-year-old Socialist MEP, is accused of accepting large sums of money to sell influence for Qatar in the European Parliament.
Police attacks on MEPs are rare. They are usually shielded from the eyes of the law due to parliamentary immunity, a right conferred on MEPs that prevents them from being sued, arrested or investigated.
However, under EU rules, Kaili could not claim this protection as she was caught red-handed, with reports suggesting police found her with large “bags of cash”.
As in most parliaments around the world, all MEPs have parliamentary immunity, and there are many reasons why it is necessary.
It means that MEPs can carry out their work, express opinions and vote freely, without fear of arbitrary arrest or political persecution, explained the spokeswoman of the European Parliament, Yasmina Yakimova.
“It’s about ensuring that parliament can function,” he added, “it’s not something that allows them to break the law more easily.”
For example, immunity can protect European lawmakers from being sued for something they say in parliament, which could restrict their freedom of speech or silence them on certain policy issues.
MEPs can request immunity if they consider that their rights are being violated. But they cannot claim immunity if they are found committing a crime, according to EU rules.
Can parliamentary immunity be removed?
But MEPs can be stripped of their immunity, although it is subject to a process.
First, a national authority, such as the police or a regulator, must submit a request to the European Parliament to lift an MEP’s immunity. It is then referred to the Legal Affairs Commission, which examines the case and recommends a decision to parliament, which votes whether to accept it or not.
Deliberations by the 28-member committee are held behind closed doors due to confidentiality concerns, and the accused MEP can present evidence and defend himself.
Lawmakers volunteer to serve on the committee, which reflects the political makeup of parliament.
“If it’s a purely political thing, we don’t lift immunity,” Daniel Freunda German Green MEP, told Euronews.
“But if someone is speeding, caught with drugs or an MEP trying to steal something, it will be brought up so that the national authorities can investigate and put them in jail.”
On Thursday, the European Chief Prosecutor requested that the immunity of Eva Kaili and MEP Maria Spyraki be lifted. suspected fraud. It is unclear whether this is related to Qatar’s corruption allegations.
Even if parliamentary immunity is removed, MEPs do not lose their seat and can remain in parliament.
Kaili is still an MEP, but yes expelled from his position as vice-president of the European Parliament.
He has the right to defend himself and prevent parliamentary immunity from being lifted, although it is unclear whether he will do so.
Did parliamentary immunity play a role in the Eva Kaili scandal?
Investigators are still establishing the facts surrounding Kaili’s alleged corruption.
“So far, I have no indication [parliamentary immunity was involved]Freund said. I mean, she might have thought she was untouchable.”
But the Green MEP stressed that immunity has not hindered the investigation or prevented his arrest, adding that he was “not aware of any case where parliamentary immunity has hindered [a] processing”.
Others pointed to deeper issues within the European parliament that have helped fuel dodgy business.
“What allows MEPs to feel they can engage in potentially dubious or criminal behavior is not so much immunity, but the culture of impunity that exists in the European Parliament,” said Nick Aiossa, deputy director of the Transparency Initiative .
He pointed to “extremely low or non-existent” anti-corruption rules and regimes in Brussels, along with a “self-monitoring system for ethical violations”.
In their code of conduct, MEPs must follow the principles of integrity, honesty, responsibility and otherswhile acting solely in the public interest.
While issues related to immunity were subject to “checks and balances,” Aiossa said there was “very little transparency” when investigating ethical violations.
An advisory committee investigates ethical violations in the European Parliament. All five of its members are chosen by the President of Parliament, who has the final say on whether an MEP is sanctioned.
Of the 24 possible violations in the parliament’s last term, no sanctions have been issued, Aiossa told Euronews, adding that even if sanctions are given, “the worst” that can happen to an MEP is that their diet is stopped for 30 days.
“We consider that the sanctioning regime is insufficient to act as a deterrent to avoid ethical violations,” he added.
MEPs have the right to claim a diet of €338 to cover hotel bills, meals and other expenses when in Brussels, Strasbourg or on official business.
“The ethics regimes are so poor, the compensation regimes for MEPs have no anti-fraud measures… the whistleblowing standards when it comes to members of parliament’s staff are inferior,” Aiossa said.
What damage has the Eva Kaili scandal done to the European Parliament?
The scandal has been overwhelming for Brussels.
“I think people are very afraid,” Yakimova said. “Everyone is working really hard to … make sure people know what parliament is doing [that] it’s really changing people’s lives for the better.”
“There will be some damage control.”
She has also been concerned about the impact of the scandal on those who are “already skeptical” of the European Parliament and the EU as a whole, believing that this would give them “more arguments in their favour”.
Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orban cited the scandal on Twitter, saying it showed the hypocrisy of Brussels.
Orban is currently in a dispute with the European Commission, which froze EU funding for Hungary over rule of law concerns.
While acknowledging there were “serious systemic problems” in Hungary, Aiossa said MEPs were “known for having a terrible double standard” when it comes to corruption.
“The MEPs can be the great defenders of ethics and anti-corruption [the EU’s] 27 member states, “he said.” So they may have given the false impression that they also have these same standards applied to the European Parliament, and they don’t.”
What reforms could come out of the Eva Kaili scandal?
The scandal has led to a strong chorus of calls for reform.
“As the president said, we will only come out stronger and make sure that the procedures really work,” Yakimova said. “There will probably be big changes.”
So far, the discussion has focused on tightening rules on transparency and behaviour, as well as putting in place tougher sanctions and better accountability systems, rather than parliamentary immunity.
“But if there’s any indication that immunity reforms are needed as well, then I’m sure it will come out,” Freund said.
Still, there were concerns about whether Brussels would grasp the nettle and reform.
“Historically [the] Advocates of the call for stricter integrity and anti-corruption measures for the 27 member states have always been the main opponents of adopting these rules and measures of their own or when it comes to themselves,” said Aiossa It’s a lack of political will.”
“All I can do is witness this with great disappointment,” he added. “What they don’t understand is that these kinds of scandals, and smaller ones in the past, do a lot of damage to the reputation of the institution and damage the trust of the citizens.
“And they still don’t do anything about it.”