The EU’s anti-fraud agency has a simple way to fight corruption at the European Parliament: Let us in.
As Parliament tussles over how to better police itself amid the Qatargate cash-for-influence scandal, Ville Itälä, the head of the European Anti-Fraud Office, known as OLAF, told POLITICO that EU lawmakers are ignoring the obvious — OLAF.
The agency already enjoys full access in Brussels to probe fraud and corruption among the thousands-strong EU civil service — everyone from mid-level staffers to European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen. It can even hand over evidence of criminal behavior to other authorities.
But when it comes to the Parliament, while OLAF can investigate, its jurisdiction often stops at the door front. No access to offices. No looking at laptops.
“We have the access to the Commission president’s office and IT but not to MEPs,” Itälä bemoaned in an interview with POLITICO. “The Parliament doesn’t let us have this access.”
It’s a distinction based on the immunity EU lawmakers enjoy in Brussels. “We have discussed this many times with the Parliament,” Itälä said, but the response is always that MEP immunity “is so strong that OLAF doesn’t have access.”
Itälä, a former Finnish interior minister who, in a previous life, was an MEP himself, rejected this view. His argument is that yes, lawmakers have immunity from criminal probes, but not from “our administrative investigations, [it] is not applicable.”
MEP immunity has been in the spotlight since December, when authorities revealed a probe into whether Qatar and Morocco were illegally buying influence in Parliament. Three current MEPs and one former lawmaker have now been arrested in the case. For the current lawmakers, Parliament had to lift their immunity before the police could move in.
Police also arrested one EU lawmaker’s assistant.
In theory, these assistants should be easier for OLAF to investigate. But Itälä said the reality is different.
“We can access to their office and their IT, but it’s not so easy,” he said. “They have only one room normally [and] it’s also the MEP office.” And an MEP’s office, of course, is a no-go zone. Laptop access is also restricted, Itälä noted, if the MEP has used an assistant’s laptop.
All the detained suspects have denied wrongdoing except the former MEP, Pier Antonio Panzeri, who admitted to bribing lawmakers in a plea deal.
What’s in the documents?
Parliament’s press service defended its handling of MEP immunity, arguing that OLAF’s 1999 founding agreement and current regulations “explicitly state that OLAF is subject to the protocol on immunities.”
And, it added, OLAF can go to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which prosecutes criminal cases, if it believes an MEP should be stripped of immunity.
“Parliamentary immunity is not a Member’s personal privilege, but a guarantee that an MEP can freely exercise his or her mandate and cannot be exposed to arbitrary political persecution,” the office said in a statement.
Itälä, predictably, sees it differently, noting Parliament itself passed a decision in 1999 pledging to cooperate fully on all OLAF probes. That decision, he said, “will give us this possibility to make these changes in the right direction.”
It’s an unusual setup for OLAF, which only faces restrictions in a few other areas — like with judges at the EU courts in Luxembourg, or with certain European Central Bank cases.
Yet despite its limited access, OLAF does open investigations in Parliament. According to OLAF figures, roughly one-third of its investigations within EU institutions between 2017 and 2021 (55 out of 151) concerned Parliament. Of those 55 cases, OLAF made recommendations in 38 instances, spanning from requests for disciplinary or judicial actions to seeking to recover lost funds.
Itälä said Qatargate has created an opportunity for his agency to reassess its relationship with Parliament.
“Everything is under discussion, and I think the momentum to discuss these issues is now,” he said, noting the agency’s discussions with Parliament, including with President Roberta Metsola and members of the budget committee, “have been very constructive and positive. But of course, we will see in the future, what will be the outcome.”
For now, Itälä is holding out hope: “I’m still confident that [there] will be changes, because it’s a question of accountability of [the] European Parliament.”
Metsola is pushing her own set of 14 internal reforms to improve parliamentary transparency. But Itälä said her initiatives, such as creating a cooling-off period for ex-MEPs looking to move into lobbying, are not sufficient.
“I welcome all these 14 points, it’s a development to a better direction and better future,” he said. “But I would like to see that there’s at least one more point to clarify these issues” — OLAF access to Parliament.
Itälä was also doubtful about another fraud-busting proposal the Commission is preparing for March. This plan would create an overarching EU ethics body, potentially emboldened with the power to investigate and sanction staff.
Itälä stressed that he doesn’t want to interfere with that process, but warned against any duplicative efforts.
“They say that they want to have teeth for this ethical body,” he argued. “We can be those teeth because we are doing exactly that work.”