BRUSSELS — The European Commission’s answer to a unified ethics overhaul across a motley set of institutions: court-backed peer pressure.
Under a proposal for an ethics organization adopted by the EU executive branch today, nine EU institutions would make — and enforce — binding commitments to implement common ethics standards for political officials working in them.
A promise that long predates the Qatargate bribery scandal that rocked the European Parliament six months ago, the plan is the Commission’s attempt to overcome legal and political hurdles blocking an independent ethics cop to enforce rules across the EU.
The new panel would not have the power to launch investigations or punish wrongdoing; however, the proposal, obtained by POLITICO, does aim to bind political officials to better police themselves (and publicly embarrass them if they don’t).
The idea is that each of the nine subject institutions would nominate a representative to sit on the ethics body, which would have six months to develop common standards.
Once they agree on new baseline rules — applying to asset disclosure, side jobs, third-party gifts, jobs they hold after leaving office and transparency — the body would then hash out a common standard for enforcing them internally.
“The parties commit to implement [the standards] in their internal rules on the conduct of their members,” the proposal reads. The institutions could be subject to challenges at the Court of Justice of the EU if the other members of the ethics body believe they’re not living up to their commitments.
In addition to the EU officials, the ethics body would also include five independent experts who would observe negotiations and weigh in on how well each institution is living up to commitments. Standards and assessments of how institutions are complying would be published on a website.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had assigned work on the ethics body to Věra Jourová, Commission vice president for values and transparency, when both took office in 2019. Since then, Jourová has contended with institutions’ reluctance to submit to an outside authority.
The Qatargate scandal that resulted in the arrests of current and former MEPs accused of accepting cash from non-EU countries including Qatar and Morocco in exchange for influence in the Parliament has done little to alter this dynamic.
“It’s not easy to create such an organ, because the work of each of these institutions is different. We need a common denominator,” Jourová told the Czech-language podcast Brussels Sandwiches on Monday.
Adding to the challenge, Jourová said at a gathering hosted by the European Ombudsman on Tuesday, was the fact that there was “not a unified voice” from the Parliament.
While a left-leaning coalition of MEPs called for a powerful ethics enforcer that could investigate and punish in 2021, advocates of maintaining their freedom of mandate on the right have remained a powerful force behind the scenes. With a year to go until the European Parliament elections, the ethics body proposal has set the stage for a political fight along these same lines.
On Wednesday, before the proposal was made public, center-left and liberal MEPs took aim squarely at the Parliament’s conservatives, who they accused of backing a weak plan.
Katarina Barley, a Parliament vice president from the Socialists & Democrats responsible for transparency issues, said in a statement that there is “no legal grounding” for the Commission’s claim that an investigative body isn’t possible. The European People’s Party, she continued, “wants to set up nothing more than a toothless roundtable with no real powers.”
Stéphane Séjourné, president of the liberal Renew group, likewise said a body without investigative authority is a “toothless bulldog,” before adding: “Europe’s conservative politicians must stop burying their heads in the sand and learn the lessons of the Qatargate scandal.”
Key EPP MEPs working on the measure did not immediately respond to requests for comment or declined to weigh in on the proposal, which has not yet officially been made public.
For her part, Jourová predicted that the general public wouldn’t care so much about the proposal — but would judge the ethics body’s conclusions.
“Next week, the voters will be yawning,” she said. What will matter, Jourová continued, will be whether politicians ultimately agree to hold themselves to a high standard on matters like accepting perks.
“People are suffering in Europe, and they don’t want to see privileges,” she said.
Ketrin Jochecová contributed reporting.
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