Open Europe Blog

The European Parliament seems to stumble from one scandal to another. Be it the misuse of allowances, for example by claiming for daily subsistence to work in Brussels only to jet off for the weekend, their second pension schemes, or their junkets to island paradises, MEPs too often make the headlines for the wrong reasons.

But the Sunday Times‘ investigation published yesterday, now dubbed the ‘cash-for-laws’ scandal, leaves three MEPs standing accused of outright corruption. The article is behind the paywall, and well worth reading in full if you get the chance, but here are the key details:

– Three MEPs, Adrian Severin, the 56-year-old former Romanian deputy prime minister, Zoran Thaler, the former Slovenian foreign minister, and Ernst Strasser, a former interior minister in Austria, were all caught agreeing to propose amendments to EU laws believing they would be paid for this work with a €100,000 (£87,300) annual salary, a consultancy fee or both.

– The meetings with undercover journalists were secretly filmed and took place in bars, restaurants and the parliament’s two buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg. Severin later emailed the reporters saying: “Just to let you know that the amendment desired by you has been tabled in due time.” Then sent an invoice for €12,000 for “consulting services concerning the codification of the Directive 94/19/EC, Directive 2009/14/EC and the amendments thereto”.

– The amendments were intended to dilute directives supposed to protect customers’ deposits after scandals such as the collapse of the Icelandic banks.

The sting has already claimed the heads of two of the MEPs, with Austrian MEP Strasser resigning immediately but claiming this was to avoid “damage” to his Austrian People’s Party rather than because he’d done anything wrong.

Severin and Thaler, said that they knew it was a set-up and merely wanted to see where the exchange of emails would lead and initially refused to resign but, according to the latest reports, Thaler has now also done so. Severin has quit his job as deputy chairman of the Romanian Social Democracy Party, but so far held onto his seat at the European Parliament. The Group of European Socialists in the EP has however ordered him to Brussels to explain himself.

As the Sunday Times argued in its leader, this comes at a time when:

“The European parliament and its 736 members matter more now than at any time in its 53-year history. We live in an era when much of British law and a high proportion of the regulations that control our lives are determined in Europe. MEPs have the power to amend those laws and directives in a way that affects everybody.”

The EP is launching its own investigation but, if they’re found guilty and perhaps even if not, this particular story is shocking enough to engrain the ‘gravy train’ image of MEPs in the public’s mind’s eye for good. Various attempts to ‘reform’ the EP (back in 2009 there were some harmonisation of rules on pay and a ban on hiring family members as staff) have clearly done nothing to stop the rot.

One can’t help thinking that the real root of the corruption and general money-grabbing behaviour of many MEPs is the fact that the EP still thinks that it can behave like a banana republic assembly without anyone noticing.

Perhaps MEPs should forgive people for taking the view that the EP, at the end, is not a ‘real’ Parliament. This was the conclusion of the German Constitutional Court, which said in its ruling on the Lisbon Treaty that:

“Measured against requirements placed on democracy in states, its election does not take due account of equality, and it is not competent to take authoritative decisions on political direction in the context of the supranational balancing of interests between the states. It therefore cannot support a parliamentary government and organise itself with regard to party politics in the system of government and opposition in such a way that a decision on political direction taken by the European electorate could have a politically decisive effect. Due to this structural democratic deficit, which cannot be resolved in an association of sovereign national states (Staatenverbund), further steps of integration that go beyond the status quo may undermine neither the States’ political power of action nor the principle of conferral.”

Unfortunately, with the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty in particular, the EP now has extensive powers over laws that impact on people’s everyday lives.

Scandals such as these will prompt more people to suggest that it’s time to move on from the argument about getting rid of just one of the EP’s extra seats in Strasbourg and consider scrapping the entire thing…

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