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EU ombudsman urges parliament ‘culture change’ over graft scandal

The EU’s ombudsman on Monday said a graft scandal roiling the European Parliament must bring a cultural shift in the bloc’s legislative system, to avoid similar alleged misdeeds happening in future.

“We might be witnessing new rules, obviously, we’ll have to see whether they are properly enforced –- that’s very important,” Emily O’Reilly, whose office investigates complaints against EU institutions, told AFP in an interview.   

“Then we’ll have to see whether there is a culture change.”  

O’Reilly said there needed to be a push to ensure that lawmakers work only for the public interest and not for themselves, third countries or companies. 

“Fundamentally, it comes down to culture,” she said. 

The head of the European Parliament vowed Monday that MEPs will be subject to new rules against “corruption” and “foreign interference” after a graft scandal linked to Qatar and Morocco.

Roberta Metsola pledged to ensure “more transparency” and “accountability” — with a “first-step approach” that would include greater scrutiny of “those representing third countries and their interests”.

“President Metsola and other leaders need to seize this opportunity, seize this panic and push through genuine reforms,” the ombudsman said. 

O’Reilly insisted that “the vast majority of MEPs work with a good ethic” as allegations of bribery by Qatar and Morocco have hammered the parliament’s image. 

“But the thing is that the rules are so lax, or at times not being enforced, that for people who wish to behave badly, they can,” she said.

“There is a sense in which the parliament as a whole has resisted the sort of scrutiny that there is on other institutions.”

– ‘Time will tell’ –

The so-called “Qatargate” corruption scandal has grabbed international headlines as a Belgian probe has seen MEP’s homes raided, bags full of cash uncovered and senior lawmaker Eva Kaili detained. 

Metsola’s proposed reforms include more checks on who gets access to parliamentary premises and barring MEPs’ activities with non-EU countries “that could create confusion” with their official duties.

Lawmakers’ finances will be declared publicly and there will be “more training on whistleblowing”, the parliament chief said. 

“Time will tell whether they actually do make a difference and whether they are enforced and whether citizens can trust them,” O’Reilly said of the reforms. 

A key moment will come when the European Parliament faces its next bloc-wide elections in 2024. 

“It’s a risk,  but it’s also an incentive for the parliament and other institutions to do something,” she said. 

“In a way, the timing is fortuitous because the elections will be happening in less than a year and half’s time therefore there is an imperative for the parliament to get its acts together.”

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