Over the weekend, a corruption scandal unfolded in Brussels that may soon rock the European Union’s very foundations.
Eva Kaili, a 44-year-old member of the European Parliament, was detained by Belgian authorities along with three other suspects for allegedly accepting large bribes (750,000 euros in cash has been seized) from Qatari officials in exchange for whitewashing Qatar’s image in Brussels. With the World Cup currently taking place in Qatar and amid widespread allegations of unsafe working conditions for migrant workers hired to build the facilities, Kaili and her fellow suspects likely have their work cut out for them.
The scandal’s implications cannot be overstated. While the EU has long labored under critiques of its democratic legitimacy, the moral legitimacy of its leaders has largely gone unquestioned. That all changes now.
To be sure, Kaili — in several ways, a cookie-cutter MEP — seemed almost primed for just this kind of scandal: young, good-looking, without much of a thematic specialty, and too ambitious to imbue her legislative work with much of a moral compass or an ideological spine. She rose through the ranks of Greece’s parliament as a national MP for the left-of-center PASOK party before becoming an MEP in 2014.
As soon as she became an MEP, Kaili became the ideal target of foreign lobbyists and influence peddlers, particularly from the Middle East, a region whose relations with the European Parliament she handled beginning in 2019 as one of the EP’s 14 vice presidents.
With the other suspects involved in the scandal either former MEPs, MEP assistants, or staffers from NGOs linked to socialist politicians, the real question is how deep the rot runs, and in which institutions, in Brussels.
That will largely determine whether the outrage currently roiling the opinion pages of European media turns into a drumbeat for reforming the rules governing ethical standards across the Brussels institutions. In the Parliament, these are currently set by a self-regulating committee of MEPs with no real powers of enforcement or investigation, both of which have been proven woefully inadequate since foreign governments that should have reported their lobbying activities in the adequate transparency register have failed to do so.
Indeed, the scandal is providing impetus for a long-stalled proposal to set up a larger independent ethics body ruling over every EU institution. Much like how the resignation of the Jacques Santer Commission in 1999 led to tougher rules against fraud in the commission under Santer’s successor, this scandal may prove to be a hinge for the EU’s deontology.
Ultimately, tougher ethics rules may fail to prevent scandals such as this one from erupting in the future. Brussels is simply the seat of too much unaccountable power for foreign governments — particularly those with paltry human rights records — not to seek other ways to influence the EU’s decisions than through standard diplomatic channels.
If corruption is read as the meeting of a supply and a demand, then the best the EU can hope to do is to keep the supply of corruption opportunities down to zero — but the demand will always be there. Preventing politicians from being there to meet it may not be possible after all.
Granted, EU citizens are right to feel outraged at the extent of Kaili’s venality (MEPs cash a monthly 12,000 euros untaxed whilst interns make nothing). Yet ultimately, unless they’re ready to question the EU’s very design, they may have to get used to scandals like this one.
Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) co-hosts the Uncommon Decency podcast on Europe.