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Qatargate: Parliament committee backs asset disclosure for MEPs

Qatargate: Parliament committee backs asset disclosure for MEPs

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Nine months after an alleged cash-for-influence scandal rocked the European Parliament, MEPs remain split over how much they reveal about potential conflicts of interest.

The latest partisan divide on ethics overhaul — this time on a set of concrete rule changes designed to close gaps revealed by Qatargate — comes as new analysis documents how MEPs frequently maintain affiliations with organizations that lobby the EU even as they serve in the Parliament.

On Thursday, Conservative MEPs on the Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee refused to back a slate of rule changes after amendments that would require asset disclosures and other tougher measures were tacked on to an earlier compromise text.

The legislation received majority support from left-leaning and centrist groups, setting the stage for a measure-by-measure brawl when the package is put before the plenary next week.

Gabriele Bischoff, a vice president of the Socialist & Democrats group, knocked the center-right European People’s Party for “forming an alliance” with “far-right forces” to water down a more sweeping overhaul. “After today’s vote, it is clear for all to see who is in favor of ambitious reform and who tries to water down the rules,” Bischoff said in a statement.

It’s the latest partisan split on boosting transparency. In a non-binding vote in July, most political groups (including on the far left and far right) backed a proposal to ban MEPs from working for groups listed in the EU’s Transparency Register of lobbyists and interest groups. EPP members overwhelmingly voted against the measure.

An analysis published Thursday by Transparency International EU showed the practice of engaging in side activities is widespread. Under current rules, MEPs are required to declare any professional activities outside of the Parliament. Of 1,678 side activities listed, some 12 percent are for groups in the Transparency Register, according to findings by Transparency International EU. That figure could be higher: The watchdog NGO found one in five disclosures were imprecise.

The rule changes under consideration would lower the disclosure burden for some MEPs: Only those who make €5,000 a year or more on side activities would have to declare their work — though they would be required to include more precise details. 

After 25 hours of closed-door talks earlier this year, negotiators from each political group agreed to: impose a clearer definition of conflicts of interest; require key MEPs to log more of their meetings with interest representatives (including diplomats); and restrict so-called friendship groups.

But conservative MEPs — untouched by the scandal that’s inspiring the changes to the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure — balked Thursday at proposals to: require MEPs to disclose their assets; make all lawmakers log their meetings (as opposed to just those with leadership roles); and to invite external experts to weigh in on potential breaches of the rules.

MEP Rainer Wieland, the center-right’s top player on the file, did not reply to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon. EPP leaders consistently argue hindering the work of elected representatives would limit their freedom while doing little to prevent criminal wrongdoing. Asset declaration is a particularly firm red line.

Those disclosures would “raise populist debates over property and income of MEPs,” said EPP MEP Sven Simon in an interview in July. “Do you really think that Eva Kaili would have published her assets? No, of course not,” he added, invoking the name of the former Parliament vice president arrested in the scandal.

Daniel Freund, a Green MEP who campaigned for asset disclosure, argued any increase in assets beyond an MEP’s declared income “can help uncover corruption.”

It’s a case he’ll have to make in an internal lobbying spree ahead of Wednesday’s planned vote in the Strasbourg plenary. MEPs will still be able to vote on each measure and add amendments. Because the legislation is about the Rules of Procedure, MEPs can call for a special rule for a so-called split vote. That would require a clause to have a majority vote in favor (not just a majority of those actually voting) in order to be adopted.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.

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