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Qatargate causes upheaval and suspicion in European Parliament

Europe Letter: Lax parliament rules under scrutiny as suspicion roams and some MEPs warn of wider problem

The Qatargate scandal is causing upheaval in the European Parliament, with legislation paused or reconsidered as it suddenly falls under suspicion, and the institution’s relaxed reporting rules for lobby meetings and the declaration of expenses suddenly drawn into sharp focus.

A proposed liberalisation of visas for Qatar and Kuwait has been knocked back to committee stage.

While Qatar has denied any wrongdoing, MEPs have also sought to delay an “open skies” deal that would grant the state-owned airline Qatar Airways access to the EU market, until improper influence is ruled out.

The European People’s Party, the biggest block in the parliament, has called for a stop to all work on “urgency resolutions”, a rapid procedure bypassing usual committee often used to respond to international events, to ensure no votes are “compromised”.


Some have warned the scandal may spread further. Ana Gomes, an MEP for Portugal until 2019, complained of relentless attempts from MEPs in her own political group to prevent resolutions regarding Morocco.

There was an angry outburst from journalists in the European Commission press room as president Ursula von der Leyen, whose interactions with media are tightly controlled, avoided answering questions about the Greek commissioner Margaritis Schinas.

Schinas attended the opening ceremony in the World Cup in Qatar and tweeted about its “tangible progress on labour reforms”.

A former chief spokesman for the Commission himself, Schinas showed himself well able to handle journalists’ questions when he quelled speculation the following day by answering frankly when asked whether he had received any gifts from Qatar.

“I have received a football, a box of chocolates I think, that I both left to the driver who was driving me to the stadium,” he replied.

“I was in the opening ceremony of World Cup as a representative of the Commission. It was the first post-pandemic global sport event and Europe could not be absent from that occasion,” he said, adding that all his statements reflected Commission policy and all meetings were publicly declared.

Arriving at a Brussels summit on Wednesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin threw his support behind the establishment of an ethics body that would oversee EU institutions. Currently, the European Parliament is largely self-regulating, with what rules there are gently enforced.

MEPs only have to declare meetings with interest groups in very limited circumstances, have no obligation to report meetings with representatives of states, and are allowed to hold other jobs.

Aside from their gross monthly salary of €9,386.29 a month and travel expenses, MEPs receive a “general expenditure allowance” of €4,778 per month, intended to pay for constituency office costs to allow them to do their work.

There is no requirement to account for how this allowance is spent: the money is wired over, and MEPs are not required to submit receipts.

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When questioned about this in the past the parliament services have argued that it would not be cost effective to employ the staff required to check how the money is spent, compared to the amount it would be expected to save in public funds.

This doesn’t pass muster with all MEPs. Three Irish representatives – the Greens’ Ciarán Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan, and Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus – have nevertheless voluntarily submitted declarations about how the money was spent.

Enclosed in the Greens’ declarations are letters from certified accountants, stating that all receipts have been checked and confirming that the allowance was only used for ordinary office costs required to do their jobs, and that the MEPs “did not receive any personal benefit”.

Two Irish MEPs have also made declarations about participation in events in which “travel, accommodation or subsistence expenses were paid or reimbursed by a third party”.

In these filings, Left wing independents Clare Daly and Mick Wallace declared that the Venezuelan government’s national election council had hosted them as election observers in Caracas for eight nights at the InterContinental Tamanaco hotel and had covered their flights.

As revealed in The Irish Times last week, five out of 13 Irish MEPs declared no meetings with interests groups at all over the first three years of their mandate until contacted by the newspaper. Seven MEPs have now committed to going beyond what the rules require in the interests of transparency.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by any Irish MEPs. But the affair has underlined why a culture of transparency over who MEPs meet and any benefits they receive is profoundly important, both to make it harder for those who would abuse the system, and to ensure public trust.