In February, the debate on the creation of an independent ethics body for European institutions is gaining momentum as several studies document the shortcomings of the European integrity system.
In the United Kingdom, there are increasing conflicts of interest relating to the management of Covid-19. The Queen of England’s ability to influence British legislation is the subject of debate. In Spain, the People’s Party is being rocked by corruption trials.
The fight against corruption comes to a halt in Brazil with the end of “Operation Car Wash”, while the Philippine president is scaling down his ambitions to eradicate corruption completely. In Japan, Prime Minister Suga is placed in an awkward position by a conflict of interest involving his son.
EUROPEAN UNION (EU)
Following the positive report by the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee regarding the creation of an independent ethics body, German environmental rapporteur Daniel Freund cites the Haute Autorité pour la transparence de la vie publique as “exemplary”. “A single independent authority in charge of monitoring, implementing and sanctioning the ethical rules of public bodies is a powerful and effective tool,” he said. However, the European People’s Party is reluctant, and is seeking to restrict the future body to a non-binding advisory role on statements by commissioners, with no power of investigation or mandate over parliamentarians and “revolving door” practices. An amendment by one of its elected representatives even goes so far as to refuse the creation of this ethics body, citing the current “institutional balance” as justification. (Contexte, 24 February 2021)
According to a study commissioned by the Greens in the European Parliament, the distribution of European subsidies is subject to political manipulation and encourages oligarchic structures in some countries. Using the example of agricultural subsidies, which are worth €60bn each year, the study shows how small farms in Central and Eastern Europe are systematically disadvantaged in the allocation of funding, while those with links to the government obtain most of the funding. In Hungary, 10% of beneficiaries have received 70% of funding since 2008. The study claims that the Orban government has exploited European agricultural subsidies to extend its influence. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land have been leased to individuals who have good contacts within the ruling Fidesz party, enabling them to obtain European subsidies later. Existing measures to prevent abuse are ineffective, according to the study. (EUReporter, 26 February 2021)
The European ombudsman is opening an enquiry into the European Defence Agency (EDA). Emily O’Reilly is seeking more information regarding the appointment of the former Director General of the EDA, Jorge Domecq, as head of the public affairs department of the Spanish subsidiary of aircraft manufacturer Airbus. The ombudsman is concerned about potential conflicts of interest in relation to this appointment, as Airbus was an EDA contractor while Jorge Domecq was in office. (Contexte, 25 February 2021)
Former German commissioner Günther Oettinger, who was responsible for energy, digital issues and the European budget at various times between 2009 and 2019, once again finds himself at the centre of a controversy over his post-mandate activities. Among the dozens of authorisations for activities from the European Commission applied for by the former commissioner, the European ombudsman is paying particular attention to an authorisation for the post of consultant to the Kekst CNC agency, which counts Philip Morris International among its clients. The Ombudsman is seeking to discover whether the European institution, in giving the green light to Günther Oettinger, was acting in line with its commitments to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to regulate tobacco industry lobbying. (Contexte, 16 February 2021)
The European border guard agency is facing fresh questions over its links with lobbyists. As the first uniformed armed corps in the European Union, the body is accused of having failed to declare its links with the armaments and surveillance industry. The survey conducted by the Corporate Europe Observatory NGO shows that between 2018 and 2019, 91 of the 125 lobbyists received by Frontex were not listed in the EU transparency register. As a result of the very strong increase in the Agency’s financial resources for 2021-2027, the border control market is attracting the attention of a growing number of interest representatives. (Le Monde, 5 February 2021)
German MEP Daniel Freund issues a warning about statements made in the European transparency register, which he believes are inaccurate and generally implausible. Nearly 135 organisations have failed to report any lobbying expenditure, despite having been on the register for several years. 599 under-reported their lobbying expenditure relative to the number of lobbyists in these organisations. Conversely, 71 organisations have reported significant lobbying expenditure but few lobbyists. A lack of human resources in the secretariat responsible for the register has been advanced as an explanation for data collection shortcomings. (Contexte, 22 February 2021)
A recent study by Transparency International reveals that Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are dominant lobbying forces not only in Brussels but also in European capitals such as Paris, Dublin and London. Representatives of Google, Microsoft and Facebook were the most widely received by European commissioners in 2020. Google is said to spend €5,750,000 a year on lobbying in EU affairs. Transparency International also demonstrates the influence of these lobbyists on national politics, and their concerted efforts to shape European legislation. In Ireland, 54% of Google’s lobbying activities are directed towards EU decisions, mainly on data protection and copyright. The absence of a register of interest representatives in Germany makes it impossible to document the scale of lobbyists’ influence within the Bundestag. (Transparency International, 25 February 2021)
Transparency International has highlighted grey areas of transparency in the European Parliament in its recent series of reports on the integrity of European institutions. Issues covered include the Parliamentary office’s lack of accountability and the institution’s lack of administration, the lack of control over possible conflicts of interest among MPs, the fact that some elected representatives enter the private sector after their term of office, and the scarcity of sanctions in response to breaches of the code of conduct. The NGO calls for the future European ethical body to be independent, adequately resourced and common to at least the Union’s three main institutions (Parliament, Commission, Council). (Contexte, 5 February 2021)
The offices of German MP Georg Nüblein were searched on Thursday 25 February in relation to a corruption case. The Bundestag had already suspended the parliamentary immunity of this Christian Democratic Party (CSU) official. The search comes as part of an investigation into suspected corruption among elected officials relating to the purchase of Covid-19 masks. The MP is alleged to have received 650,000 euros in commission for acting as an intermediary between a mask producer and the federal and Bavarian governments. Mr. Nüblein is a health expert at the CSU, and is the conservative CDU/CSU alliance’s second highest-ranking official in the Bundestag. (Politico, 25 February 2021)
The international community calls on the Bosnian authorities to adopt a law to prevent conflicts of interest. The EU delegation, the US Embassy and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission insisted emphasised that this conflict-of-interest framework needed to be in line with international standards. The delegations pointed out that this was a condition for the recognition of Bosnia’s candidate status for EU membership. The draft law presented last December by the Bosnian Ministry of Justice did not show sufficient evidence of progress regarding the prevention of conflicts of interest, and was sent back to the Bosnian government by its House of Representatives. (Sarajevo Times, 12 February 2021)
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Nicosia on 13 February to protest against corruption scandals in the midst of a health crisis. “Golden visas” issued to foreign investors, which reportedly encourage corruption and money laundering, continue to provoke controversy. This system, which was criticised by the European Union, was abolished last November and prompted the resignation of the President of the Parliament, Demetris Syllouris. His departure was, however, accompanied by a generous severance package. (L’Express, 13 February 2021)
The Spanish People’s Party (PP) goes on trial over alleged issues of secret funding. After years of silence, former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas declares his willingness to collaborate with the judicial process. He could potentially provide details of the PP’s financing mechanisms over decades and the systematic practice of requiring commission payments from companies in exchange for public contracts. The former treasurer is currently serving a 29-year prison sentence for corruption and feels that he has been unjustly abandoned by his former political companions. The forthcoming hearings are expected to be attended by former heads of government José Maria Aznar (1996-2004) and Mariano Rajoy (2011-2018). (Les Echos, 8 February 2021)
Conservative Party sympathisers were given preferential treatment in the awarding of public contracts related to Covid-19. According to a Guardian newspaper columnist, this scandal is merely symptomatic of the inner workings of the British political system. The lack of transparency on public contracts has ensured that an “inner circle” of privileged suppliers has first pickings for contracts, at over-inflated prices, according to NGOs who took the case to the UK’s High Court. More generally, the absence of a genuine ethical control mechanism in British politics is criticised. (The Guardian, 22 February 2021)
Buckingham Palace maintains that Queen Elizabeth did not seek to block legislation relating to her personal fortune. An investigation by The Guardian has revealed that the Queen reportedly sought legal advice from 1973 onwards on legislation aimed at increasing the transparency of her share portfolio. The Guardian claims that the sovereign abused “Queen’s consent”, a power that entitles her to be notified of legislative debates in advance. The Palace argues that the Government has always enjoyed the benefit of this purely formal arrangement, but the Guardian believes that this procedure has enabled the monarch to secretly influence British legislation. (Politico, 8 February 2021)
As his trial opens, Benjamin Netanyahu claims he is innocent. The Israeli Prime Minister denies his guilt in relation to charges of fraud, breach of trust and corruption. The court in Jerusalem is to decide on the timing of hearings for hundreds of witnesses while the country is in the midst of an election campaign. Legislative elections are to be held on 23 March. This is the first time a sitting prime minister has been charged. The trial has been repeatedly postponed for reasons relating to Covid-19. Citizens have maintained a vigil outside the Prime Minister’s residence for several months. (Les Echos, 8 February 2021)
Brazil’s largest anti-corruption operation, “Lava Jato” (“Car Wash”), has been quietly dismantled after seven years of existence and hundreds of convictions of big bosses and politicians (including ex-president Lula). The operation revealed a vast network of corruption with ramifications throughout Latin America and Africa. The appointment of anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro to the Bolsonaro government in 2019 undermined Lava Jato’s credibility, with questions of bias being raised in response to Lula’s conviction. Subsequent revelations have documented the prosecution’s case against Lula. Although Lava Jato has succeeded in shutting down a corruption cartel, Brazil continues to stagnate in 98th position in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. (Le Figaro, 9 February 2021)
The White House is waiving its ethics rules to allow an employee of the Department of Homeland Security to work on issues for which she was previously a lobbyist for Amnesty International. This first suspension of the Biden administration’s ethical rules comes less than a month after the adoption of its ethical commitment by presidential decree. The text of the presidential decree implied that requests for suspension of ethical rules would be granted more easily to officers who had previously worked on advocacy for NGOs than for other private sector interests. (Axios, February 19, 2021)
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is at the centre of a controversy regarding a conflict of interests hanging over his son. As an employee of a large Japanese television production company, the Prime Minister’s son invited Ministry of Telecommunications staff to dinners costing almost 4600 euros. According to Japanese ethical guidelines, public officials may not accept gifts or meals from companies under their jurisdiction. The government adopted these guidelines in 2000, following a major corruption scandal in 1998. (Nikkei Asia, 25 February 2021)
President Rodrigo Duterte has admitted that it is impossible to eradicate corruption entirely. Duterte has regularly expressed his frustration with corruption in the Philippine administration, even leading him to threaten resignation. Ending corruption was one of the Philippine president’s campaign promises for 2016. In 2020, Rodrigo Duterte ordered the Ministry of Justice to conduct a government-wide investigation into corruption. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 25, 2021)