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Tag: Corruption

With friends like these

  • February 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

With friends like these

 

US State Secretary Pompeo’s tour a mixed bag for Europe

 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

On Monday (11 February), the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived on his divisive unifying tour of Central Europe to encourage the region to look towards the West. Despite the US Department of State characterising the trip as a visit to mark the 30th anniversary of Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland tearing down ‘the Iron Curtain to reclaim their freedom and sovereignty, choosing the path of Western democracy denied to them for decades’, the main function of Mr Pompeo’s visit has been to oppose the growing influence of Russia and China in the region. For the EU, Pompeo’s visit comes with mixed feelings.

 

First of all, whether he wants it or not, the visits come as free gifts to the illiberal governments of Hungary and Poland. In a joint press briefing with Pompeo on Monday, for instance, the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó did not miss the opportunity to boost Viktor Orbán’s policies by drawing parallels with the Trump administration. He called both countries “patriotic in terms of their policies” and said that the importance of safeguarding “the Christian heritage” worldwide united Budapest and Washington. The EU currently has disciplinary measures in place against both Hungary and Poland for undermining the rule of law and the Union’s fundamental values, and an official US state visit risks legitimising these government’s and their actions at the heart of Europe.

 

But then again, Pompeo is not an EU fan: in a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels in December, he celebrated states reasserting their sovereignty and called for reforming the liberal international order to “respect national sovereignty”. So perhaps the European rogue states are not so much a concern for him, as long as they assert their sovereignty under US influence rather than under the influence of Russia or China.

 

In addition, the US Secretary of State attended a two-day Middle East summit in Warsaw alongside Vice President Mike Pence. Both men pushed the trump administration’s aggressive anti-Iran message, calling for the EU to back Washington’s sanctions on the Middle Eastern state. The Commission, France, and Germany have been particularly annoyed by the controversial conference and have refused to send diplomats to the meeting, while simultaneously attempting to dilute the summit’s Iran focus from the outside. In the worst-case scenario, potentially emerging fractures in the EU’s common position on Iran could seriously hinder the bloc’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, as foreign policy decision-making still requires unanimity voting in the Council. It also bears the risk of the US further alienating some of its Western European allies.

 

On a more positive note, however, the strategy of the US to curb the influence of China and Russia in Central Europe overlaps with the EU’s own efforts in the region. Both Washington and Brussels have come to identify challenging weak governance, bolstering the rule of law, and tackling corruption as the central means for achieving their individual objectives in the region, namely reducing the influence of hostile powers and to uphold European values, respectively. In Hungary, for example, Secretary Pompeo met with members of the civil society critical of Mr Orbán’s politics, while also announcing that the US will increase funding for independent media and strengthen law enforcement cooperation in the whole region. It is, however, doubtful whether the shared goals will lead to common coordinated action in the near future given the low levels of mutual trust between the partners on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

After turning away from the region during the Obama years, the US is seeking to return to Central Europe with a stronger presence. “When we’re not here, others will follow and they’ll show up,” said Pompeo during his press briefing in Hungary. Good old great power competition is driving America back to Europe, but likely in a way that is drastically different from before.

 

Foreign policy exerted by the Land of the Free under its current administration is a frantic and inconsistent one, looking more often towards national sovereignty, strongmen, and spheres of influence than the liberal, rules-based multilateral post-WWII order. And what is Central and Eastern Europe for the realists of international relations if not an influenceable sphere?

 

Well, to be fair, it is also a good business opportunity – the Central European NATO members have been growing their defence budgets at the fastest pace in Europe since the Russian aggression against Ukraine began. Slovakia alone is modernising its military with mostly American-made equipment to the sound of €6.5 billion by 2030. No wonder Pompeo stopped in Bratislava.

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And not as I do

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

And not as I do

The EU must lead the way in transparency

Source: Daniel Huizinga | Flickr

“We cannot demand openness and transparency from others, if those principles are not followed within our own institution.” Heidi Hautala, the Finnish Green MEP and European Parliament Vice-President hit the nail right on the head with her comment last July after the people’s representatives had once again rejected greater transparency over their use of expenses.

 

Without even a hint of irony, The European Parliament’s 15-member executive committee – the Bureau – had behind closed doors blocked a proposal to tighten controls over the MEPs’ General Expenditure Allowance (GEA). This ensured that the European parliamentarians could continue to enjoy their €4,416 a month parliamentary expenses without much scrutiny, costing the European taxpayer around €40 million a year. No requirements are currently in place for the representatives to provide information on how these funds are spent and most MEPs claim the full allowance.

 

Furthermore, in September 2018 the EU General Court even ruled that the Parliament had the right to reject journalists’ requests for greater expenses transparency on the basis of the protection of personal data. This decision immediately begs two obvious questions: 1) what are the MEPs doing with public money that is so private that it cannot be publicly revealed and 2) does the MEPs’ right to privacy really trump the European citizens’ right of access to information as set in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights? The court seems to have regarded the former as a question not worth considering and decided the latter to the benefit of the parliamentarians.

 

Last week it was revealed that the longest serving MEP currently sitting in the Parliament, Elmar Brok, had personally netted almost €18,000 from four groups of visitors by charging them €150 per person to visit the European Parliament as his guests. Nothing like a representative of the people who makes extra money out of the people he represents. But it is not so much the side hustle itself as the allegations that Mr Brok claimed many of the visitor costs back from the Parliament as expenses that constitute the problem within the context of transparency. Easy money. Doubled.

 

Scandals such as this are political gold for Eurosceptics looking to challenge the institution as wasteful and opaque – even if the same Eurosceptics are not any better with their own expenses. For example, last summer the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) was ordered to reimburse the Parliament over €500,000 of misspent public money, while in December the right-wing conservative Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) was asked to repay over €530,000. This kind of behaviour can only be challenged with greater accountability, which does not exist without greater transparency on the MEPs’ expenses.

 

Overall, European institutions need to become more mindful of the public’s perceptions as well as more open regarding their activities. Simply put, Europe of today cannot be run on the Monnet method of integration by stealth. The politicisation of the EU since the Maastricht Treaty together with the rapid expansion of access to information has resulted in the increased power of political narratives and brought with itself the need for public institutions to repair information gaps between what they do and how they are represented by other political actors in particular. As a directly elected political body, the European Parliament has so far been able to defend its democratic credentials to those willing to listen, but without greater transparency it cannot challenge the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the European project. Opaque expenses spending and unaccounted for meetings with unregistered lobbyists are powerful ammunition to those wanting to portray the Parliament as an inward-looking elitist institution distant from the masses.

 

On the other side of Rue Belliard, the European Parliament’s co-legislator is not making things any easier either. Despite recommendations from the European Ombudsman, the Council has failed to systematically record member state positions on legislative issues and routinely marks documents as not to be published. Transparency in the Council has been viewed as a hindrance to the negotiations between the EU’s 28 members despite academic evidence to the contrary. The secretive nature of the Council has turned lack of transparency into an artform that allows member state governments to take credit or shift blame depending on whether a particular decision made in the Council is likely to be viewed as popular or unpopular within their domestic electorates. In addition, due to inadequate measures for parliamentary scrutiny on EU affairs in many member states, the positions taken by national governments in Brussels can remain hidden and uncontested throughout the decision-making process. This legislative black hole allows for European populists to further stoke the fire of public dissatisfaction by representing “Brussels” as a malevolent entity oblivious to the needs of the people.

 

More often than not, however, this Eurosceptic blame game has centred around the Commission. Yet, as an unelected political institution, the Commission has actually been more sensitive to the calls of unaccountability and lack of democratic credentials than the EU’s co-legislators and has attempted to improve its transparency accordingly. Achieving greater openness was in fact one of President Juncker’s first pledges after assuming the role. For example, the Commissions has staff rules in place for limiting the so-called ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, it conducts trade negotiations in a more transparent manner and has been highly responsive to the recommendations of the European Ombudsman, while commissioners and senior officials are mandated to publish their travel expenses and meetings with lobbyists (who must be registered with the Commission’s transparency register). Currently only seven member states have passed national legislation regulating lobbying and only five have a mandatory code of conduct for lobbyists similar in scope to the Commission’s standards.

 

After years of demanding openness and transparency from market actors in the name of competition and trust, the EU’s institutions must reform and unify their own transparency rules for greater accountability and credibility for the Union as a whole. And the first opportunity of the year is rapidly approaching, as the European Parliament will be voting for the first time on binding transparency rules for lobbying activities in its Rules of Procedure tomorrow (31 January).

 

Yet, without a hint of irony the Parliament will be conducting another transparency vote in the opaquest manner possible. This time the European People’s Party (EPP) voted in a secret ballot within the group to demand that the votes on the transparency amendments to the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure be conducted by secret ballot. As the EPP currently holds over 20% of the parliamentary seats, they were able to force a secret ballot on the vote based the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. On top of this, tomorrow’s vote is shadowed by a particular declaration made by the Parliament’s lawyers in November 2018. According to the EP’s legal minds, mandating MEPs to meet only registered lobbyists and even only voluntarily publishing information about these meetings is illegal based on the MEPs’ ‘freedom of the parliamentary mandate’ – an argument that has also been supported by the EPP. Both the EPP and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) groups have previously voted against rules allowing MEPs to meet only with lobbyists in the transparency register, which is already compulsory for commissioners and the Commission’s senior officials. It is time to unify the measures.

 

An increasingly politicised union has no choice but to increase the openness of its law-making. Accountability and trust have been burning topics in the current European debate on election manipulation, disinformation, and social media in particular, and the EU must be on the front lines of delivering reliable information to the voting public as well as ensure the accountability of its own actions. Greater institutional transparency is certainly the key to both of these ambitions.

 

Update: On 31 January the European Parliament approved the amended rulebook, including transparency rules and measures to prevent psychological or sexual harassment, by 496 votes to 114.

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An honest broker?

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

An honest broker?

Romania assumes its first EU Presidency amid difficult times

Source: Max Pixel

 

Welcome to the year that will shape the future of Europe – a year marked by uncertainty over Brexit, European Election results, and the multiannual financial framework (MFF). All four of the EU’s top positions – the Commission, Council, Parliament and Central Bank presidencies – will have new holders before the year is done. (Assuming that the fragmented Parliament can find a majority to confirm a new Commission leader, that is.) It is against this backdrop that Romania assumed the six-month rotating EU Presidency this January for the first time since joining the EU in 2007.

 

The Presidency offers Romania an indispensable window to improve its image among the other member states and grow its influence on European policy topics such as common defence and accession negotiations with the Western Balkans countries. Responsible for chairing the meetings of Council configurations and preparatory bodies, the country will have the ability to shape the EU’s agenda with issues of national importance from security policy on the Black Sea neighbourhood to redefining the future vision for Europe. On the latter, the informal Sibiu summit on Europe Day to conclude the Future of Europe debate provides Romania with an additional opportunity to host and present its views to both EU and national leaders at a crucial time – six weeks after Brexit and two weeks before the European Elections.

 

The Presidency will also present Romania with a useful tool to build trust and alliances within the EU, which it has so far struggled to develop as a member of the bloc. Indeed, trust and coalitions will certainly be needed as Romania tries to guide and coordinate the policy positions of 28 member states on the MFF, Brexit, and a vast number of legislative proposals in time before the end of the Parliament and Commission’s mandates. This is Romania’s chance to rise to the occasion, and according to the Romanian EU Affairs minister George Ciamba the country wants to act as an “honest broker” that creates cohesion, maintains unity, and oversees the successful transition between parliamentary terms and EU budgets.

 

Yet, the Romanian EU Presidency has been largely shadowed by the debate over the country’s domestic political situation and doubts of its preparedness to assume the responsibility of presiding over EU members. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, for instance, expressed his concerns three days before the turn of the year, stating that “the Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to chair the EU countries”. The EU has been frustrated with the governing coalition’s efforts to undermine judicial independence and the rule of law, which turned the relationship between Brussels and Bucharest particularly sour only months before the start of the Presidency. In November, the Commission issued eight new recommendations to prevent the misuse of the criminal code in Romania while the European Parliament passed a resolution addressing its deep concern with the government’s revision of judicial and criminal legislation, but no European disciplinary measures have been adopted yet. The proposed legislation, which includes the decriminalisation of some corruption offences and reduces prison sentences for politicians, has also triggered large protests in the country.

 

This challenge on the rule of law bears a particular risk to the country’s long-standing fight against corruption. Thousands of Romanian political figures have been successfully convicted on corruption charges especially in the last five years, largely as a result of the anti-corruption operations led by Laura Codruța Kövesi, who was appointed as the National Anticorruption Directorate’s (DNA) chief prosecutor in 2013. Following the 2016 electoral success of the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD) under the leadership of party leader Liviu Dragnea, however, the anti-corruption wave has faced increasing resistance and hostility from the political elite. Dragnea, who received a two-year suspended sentence on electoral fraud in 2016 and thus cannot serve as the prime minister, controls the cabinet and has led the appointment of three prime ministers in two years.

 

Chief Prosecutor Kövesi was controversially ousted by the government from her position in July 2018 – a month after Dragnea had received a new three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on corruption, which is currently pending appeal. The party leader has also recently filed a lawsuit against the Commission after its anti-fraud office OLAF accused Dragnea of misusing €21 million from EU funds, while the SPD is perhaps unsurprisingly drafting a new legislative proposal to grant amnesty to anyone serving an under 5-year sentence on corruption. Meanwhile, the interim chief prosecutor who replaced Kövesi, Anca Jurma, announced her resignation this week citing a “hostile environment”. But despite the corruption and growing contempt for the rule of law, the opposition parties have been unable to put together an alternative coalition, leading to the SPD-led government to survive a no-confidence vote on 20 December.

 

It remains to be seen how much the domestic political turbulence will affect the Romanian Presidency during the next six months. Responding to the concerns in an interview with Politico, EU Minister Ciamba dismissed the dysfunctional national scene, saying that the presidency will be largely in the hands of civil servants and Romanian diplomats. We can only hope so.

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The honour is mine

  • July 2018
  • Admin

The honour is mine

MEPs’ side jobs and the reputation of the Parliament

 

Source of the photo: AFP

In Ancient Rome, only wealthy people could be chosen as consuls. It was the highest elected political office for the Roman Republic, therefore considered as the greatest honor during someone’s political career. The wise Romans knew very well that politicians making their life exclusively out of political revenues could be easily corrupted and having no experience in real jobs could seriously limit their insight, so they preferred those candidates who used to exercise something different before entering into politics.

 

We, Europeans have always struggled with the shadow of the ancient Romans and the need to think about something new that our brilliant ancestors haven’t invented yet. But maybe it is high time we admitted that we shouldn’t bother to renew already great institutions. The concept of the consulship might be a good example of that, but only if we apply the whole approach.

 

The Transparency International has published this week an extremely interesting report about the side jobs that Members of the European Parliament exercise. According to the declarations, 31 percent of the MEPs have additional revenues. In total, they have earned more than 41 million euros of 1366 side jobs since the beginning of their current term. Some of them have gained more than 1 million euros and hold more than 10 positions.

 

Officially, MEPs are allowed to have side jobs in order to “stay in touch with their profession and to return to a previous job when they leave office.” That is completely reasonable and understandable. Even the Romans would have agreed with its wisdom, with some restrictions, of course. The maintenance of an already existing SME or cabinet certainly doesn’t require that much effort. Nor does it shake up one’s political career if they occasionally give some lectures at a university or continue to sit in the board of a foundation.

 

But I seriously doubt that directors of huge telecommunications firm or hospital would have time to think about European legislation or dutiful MEPs would have energy to run a big business. Don’t take me as naïve, I know very well that it is mostly the assistants and advisors who prepare the legislation. But I do know MEPs who make their best to be rapporteurs on important files and become the face of important campaigns or political issues.

 

Not to mention the fact that all of them earns around 8500 euro basic salary plus 4500 euro expense payment (what they have just refused again to be held accountable for, but that would be the topic of another blog post). It’s a fair payment for an and highly respected job, let’s be honest. But this time it is not the amount I want to address, but the prestige.

 

Less than one year before the next European Parliament elections, it would be great to talk a bit more about the reputation of the institution which is the only one in the EU that conforms the principle of democratic legitimacy. The MEPs are meant to represent the interests of European citizens and to counterbalance the influence of national governments.

 

If they continue “moonwalking” (having several side jobs in the public sphere and earning good money next to their political career), the European Parliament won’t have any moral stance to criticize corrupt government officials in member states, nor any leverage to act against them. If they continue moonwalking, Eurosceptics can easily question the existence and the need for supranational European institutions. If they continue moonwalking, the European citizens won’t feel that Europe means a solution to their disillusionment with national politics.

 

I truly hope that the political groups in the Parliament will soon learn the lesson from the history book and apply both criteria of consulship when they look for new candidates for the 2019 elections. Having experience and wealth is not enough on its own to be a good politician. They should perceive it as the highest level of the cursus honorum.

 

 

 

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