EP versus OLAF - lobbying scandal clash
by Rikard Jozwiak
The "cash-for-amendments" scandal that has rocked the European Parliament in recent weeks has caused a curious clash between the European Union's legislative body and the European Anti-Fraud office OLAF - writes Rikard Jozwiak.
The Sunday Times' revealed on March 20, that three members of the EP allegedly agreed to change EU legislation in exchange for money. The newspaper posed as lobbyists for an industrial client and offered 60 MEPs €100,000 per year to influence decision-making in Brussels and Strasbourg. The news prompted the EP President Jerzy Buzek to propose a wide range of changes to the code of conduct as well as the regulating the access to lawmakers, which various lobbyists currently enjoy.
Buzek, though, has come in for some criticism for initially locking out OLAF from the investigations into the allegations against the Austrian centre-right euro-deputy Ernst Strasser, Slovenian socialist MEP Zoran Thaler and the Romanian socialist MEP Adrian Severin. Originally, OLAF was set-up in the wake of the allegations of fraud that led to the resignation of the entire Santer Commission in 1999. Enjoying strong support from the parliament, it was created to investigate financial irregularities within EU institutions. Curiously, the mandate has widened to include issues such as smuggling activities of cigarette companies
Having faced severe criticism from numerous political groupings in the EP, the president late last week made a U-turn and invited OLAF to investigate the allegations. But the agency will only be allowed to launch an investigation into whether there was a breach of administrative rules by the MEPs. "The investigation might still lead to criminal proceedings," says OLAF's spokesman Pavel Borkovec.
He maintains that the agency started the investigation immediately, but does not rule out that the political wrestling match with the parliament may have had negative effects on OLAF's work: "There is no reason to believe that the discussions during this time would have hampered the investigation, but one cannot exclude it."
There are, though, still issues that complicate the investigation. The MEPs still enjoy full immunity under parliamentary rules, even if both Strasser and Thaler have resigned. This means that OLAF will not have access to premises, such as the working offices used by MEPs. Borkovec points out that there might be a ways around it. "The rooms have most likely remained sealed so no one has had access to them," says Borkovec. "There are also other sources of evidence not necessarily confined to the offices and there might not be any evidence there anyways."
Another problem is the involvement of several national jurisdictions including the three representing the MEPs, as well as the Belgian one. All have launched investigations of various kinds and Borkovec underlines that OLAF is ready to fully co-operate and support these. The scandal has pushed Buzek to propose a proper code of conduct for MEPs as well as suggesting other reforms such as a mandatory lobbyists' register, detailed reports of MEPS interests, a compulsory legislative footprint attached to committee reports, an ethics committee and stricter rules on second jobs.
Head of Transparency International's EU office Jana Mittmeier describes the current situation as a "window of opportunity" to change the working of the parliament. "We don't assume that MEPs intentionally take advantage of the situation but there is a huge grey-zone when you don't regulate properly," she says, adding: "There need to be practical rules."
Olivier Hoedeman, of the Corporate Europe Observatory campaign group echoes Mittmeier's thoughts, stating: "The parliament is in need of some critical self-reflection. It is a different place now than in the 1970s, with more political powers - but it has not taken its time to develop how it should work in this particular field. The most pressing issue for him is the issue of second jobs for MEPs. "To be an MEP should be a full-time job," says Hoedeman. "They can have a job on the side, but there should be a maximum income ceiling for other services."
He claims that a "cooling-off period" of at least a year should also be applicable for MEPs, who have left office to take up lobbying activities afterwards. Such radicalism is certainly needed. Whether self-regulating MEPs will ever advocate this type of sea change is another matter altogether.
Non-attached Austrian MEP Hans Peter Martin tells Public Service Europe.com that the lobbying scandal could have been avoided as there had been "a systemic problem in the EP" for at least a decade. "In the last week alone - I have been offered € 10,000, a trip to China, car-testing in Berlin and been invited to a splashy event in Salzburg all free of charge. I now plan to do a lobby ticker on my website, where I will publish all the letters and invitations I get from lobbyists," he said.
Although, insisting he is not against lobbying per se – the MEP adds: "I have also received direct emails, concerning the upcoming vote on the derivatives directive. I have received voting lists and very detailed instruction how to vote.
"The longer it takes to reform the parliament, the quicker I believe people will turn their back on European ideals. We need much more than just a code of conduct. MEPs should publish who is contacting them; all gift over €30 should be published and you should be forbidden to use your MEP pass once your mandate is over. In the US congress they have to account for every pencil they buy.
"And I don't have high-respect for OLAF, it is more a paper tiger than a real watchdog. It is still connected to the commission and is not independent. Many of their high-profile investigations have pretty much come down to nothing a few years down the line."