Images of “bags of cash” being paid by Qatari officials to buy influence in Europe, including allegations of money being paid to an MEP, have exposed a “porous ethical framework” in the European Union, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has said.
Ms O’Reilly on Thursday also criticised the European Commission for its refusal to release texts between commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the chief executive of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms O’Reilly was addressing TDs and senators at the Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions.
She said the European Parliament had now begun the process of reforming its internal ethics rules and earlier this week her office had contributed its thoughts on “what needs to be considered in order to produce rules that will withstand both internal and external pressure”.
“Recent months have been dominated by the fallout from what is known as Qatargate, serious allegations of foreign governments buying and attempting to buy influence in the European Parliament,” Ms O’Reilly said.
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“The scandal exposed a porous ethical framework which bad actors could and can exploit. The vast majority of MEPs are conscientious and act in the public interest, but lax ethics rules empower those who choose to act corruptly.”
Ms O’Reilly said the issue about the texts between Ms Von der Leyen and Pfizer arose when “a journalist turned to my office after the commission refused to give access to text messages sent between its president and the CEO of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company concerning the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines”.
Ms O’Reilly said the EU’s access-to-documents – or freedom-of-information – law, clearly states that it is the content and not the medium that counts when it comes to considering what constitutes an EU document. “However, my inquiry showed that the commission does not consider text messages to be documents so it does not record them.”
She made a finding of maladministration in that case on the grounds that what the commission described as “short-lived” messages do indeed constitute documents.
The New York Times newspaper, to which the journalist was accredited, has now taken a case to the European Court of Justice in relation to affair.
Ms O’Reilly said text issues could have been handled better by Ms Von der Leyen simply acknowledging the importance of acquiring a vaccine and explaining the texts, but this had not been done. The issues of transparency and accountability, of Quatargate and the Pfizer texts, and of lobbying, had “dogged” the EU over the last number of years and had taken away from the good work the institutions were doing, she said. Controversies such as these “do play into the Eurosceptic community and they do play into the anti-vax community”, she said.
Ms O’Reilly told the petitions committee: “When something is hidden, that is not good for the community, which is doing such good work in other areas. Lax ethics empower those who chose to act corruptly.”