Updated: Sep 13
By Ville Rajala
The arrest of Eva Kaili on corruption charges on 9 December 2022 will go down as the day that shocked the EU. What ensued was outrage and disbelief within Brussels and across the Union. Disbelief and outrage morphed into a barrage of pleas to reform the EU’s ways of dealing with lobbying efforts from foreign states. However, Qatargate has not only exposed the European Parliament’s possible shortcomings in self-governance and self-regulation on lobbying activities, but it has also exposed the sometimes complicated nature of funding NGOs.
© FT montage: AFP/Getty Images
Dubbed the Qatargate, it is the largest corruption scandal to hit the EU in decades. An alleged pay-to-influence scheme orchestrated by Qatar involves prominent NGOs and multiple European Parliament officials, including then Vice-President Eva Kaili. These revelations have left the European Parliament under the spotlight.
People in Brussels and across the EU have been left to wonder the same question: How could this have happened and how can we ensure that this does not happen again? After the initial shock, many suggestions to reform have been put forward to better deal with lobbying efforts from foreign countries; however, little has been materialised.
Qatargate has also put the complicated nature of NGO funding into the spotlight. In this follow-up piece to MJPE’s previous article on this matter, the most relevant developments ever since will be evaluated.
What is the Parliament pushing for?
All political groups at the European Parliament have seized the opportunity to push various suggestions on how to deal with lobbying influence from foreign countries. Surprisingly, the most-detailed proposals came from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the group of which Eva Kaili was a member.
The ’15 Point Plan’, published by the S&D, suggests that MEPs should be subjected to a ‘cooling-off period’ of two years after their Parliamentary service has ended. The ‘cooling off period’ essentially means that an ex-MEP cannot engage in lobbying activities towards Parliament for a period of two years.
A similar system is already in place for Commissioners; however, its feasibility has come into question when former European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes allegedly lobbied for Uber during her ‘cooling-off period’.
Other notable proposals include measures to strengthen whistle-blower protection and categorically ban friendship groups within Parliament. These groups, like the intergroups at European Parliament, are unofficial groupings of MEPs, which focus on building and promoting relationships with non-EU countries.
While these circles can offer a meaningful way to exchange views and foster relationships in the area of foreign affairs, they can also function as influence tools on European institutions.
According to the European Parliament’s website, it is possible that some of these groups are sponsored by lobbyists or foreign governments. The Qatar-EU Parliamentary Friendship Group, which cooperated with the Qatari embassy in Brussels, is an example.
Parliament’s heavyweights are also chipping in, and in January the Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola put forward multiple proposals to ensure that the Qatargate never happens again. The central piece of Metsola’s recommendation is a new requirement to report every meeting when MEPs, assistants or civil servants discuss legislative work with a third party.
If this proposal passes successfully, it will be a major change, as under current rules, only rapporteurs and committee chairs are required to disclose meetings with third-party members.
Metsola has also proposed to prohibit the possibility for assistants and civil servants to have a ‘second job’; for example, a managerial role in an NGO. This is to limit the possibility of conflicting interests. Strikingly, however, MEPs would not be included, meaning that they could enjoy board positions in NGOs, even though the ex-MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, president of the NGO Fight Impunity, has been the central player in this corruption scandal.
Shining Light on NGO funding
Qatargate has sparked fierce discussions in Brussels on the transparency of NGO funding. In the spotlight has been the NGO Fight Impunity’s funding as part of the pay-to-influence scheme. This is not the first time that this type of funding has raised questions.
During the legislative process for the Digital Services Act, many tech giants lobbied through organisations like SME Connect and Allied for Startups. These organisations, which seemed to be advocating on behalf of the small and medium-sized enterprises, in reality, were receiving a sizeable amount of their funding from tech giants and other business conglomerates.
Especially problematic, according to the head of the EU lobbyist association Paul Varakas, are NGOs with multi-layered funding structures. For example, an NGO can declare that its funding comes from a set of foundations; however, the initial donors for the foundations are often not declared.
The lack of transparency makes it rather hard to determine whether the funding is coming inside or outside of Europe. Ultimately, it is paramount to be transparent about who is funding the activities in Brussels, as the funding often dictates whose behalf one is acting for.
Qatargate showed that EU institutions are susceptible and vulnerable to corruption and malicious influence by foreign state actors. Although the court proceedings are underway for the main culprits, the job to reform Parliaments and the EU’s practices to deal with foreign state lobbying is far from over.
There are no airtight systems, however, with the right tools and measures proposed by the Parliament - like the restrictions on lobbying for two years, logging all the meetings with third parties and banning friendship groups - it is possible to make corruption significantly more difficult.
The proposed measures by President Metsola would, to a large degree, lower the chances of a similar scandal happening again. Declaring the requirement of meetings with third parties and making MEPs and Parliament’s staff subject to it, is an essential step towards enhanced transparency and accountability.
President Metsola at the European Council Summit in Brussels © JOHN THYS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Additionally, imposing a two-year lobbying ban for MEPs leaving office could curb the revolving door phenomenon where MEPs move to become a lobbyist for the private sector.
Lastly, as the initial source of donors for some NGOs is masked by a wall of foundations, it is impossible to determine who acts on behalf of whom. Although not necessarily illegal, it creates an environment where influence and access can be bought without revealing one's identity.
This, in turn, can provide a platform for actors with more sinister intentions to gain substantial influence. Declaring funding and forcing actors to register with the Transparency Register could remedy this.
Since all reforms are still to be passed by the European Parliament, the EU is at a crossroads. Decisions taken now on how to deal with lobbying and influencing campaigns from foreign nations will set the course on how the Union will both deter and deal with them if anything like the Qatargate happens again.
Sources: Euractiv, European Parliament, Politico, Financial Times, the Guardian, MJPE, Corporate Europe Observatory
Written by Ville Rajala