Lionel Barber is former editor of the Financial Times (2005-20) and Brussels bureau chief (1992-98)
There is nothing quite like a European political scandal involving Belgian cops, an entitled elite and suitcases stuffed with cash.
Qatargate has ensnared a glamorous Greek MEP (one of 14 vice-presidents of the ludicrously bloated European Parliament), as well as an Italian ex-MEP who heads an anti-corruption group, and various family members related to both. Moreover, the police investigation into €1.5 million of cash for favors could hardly be better timed to catch global attention with Qatar hosting the World Cup.
Qatargate shows that everything and nothing has changed since another scandal convulsed Brussels more than 20 years ago: the notorious l’affaire Cresson, involving a French commissioner, her sexagenarian dentist boyfriend and misappropriation of EU funds.
Edith Cresson, a protégé of the late French President François Mitterrand, was best known for claiming that one in four Englishmen is gay and for attributing the economic success of the Japanese to their “ant-like qualities.”
During her stint as EU commissioner for education, research and science, which I witnessed, Mme Cresson employed René Berthelot, her personal dentist, as a highly paid EU adviser on HIV/Aids, a subject about which he knew nothing.
Berthelot received €150,000 for two years’ work during which time he produced a grand total of 24 pages of notes, later judged to be of little or no value, according to a report by a committee of wise men appointed by European Commission President Jacques Santer.
Santer, a genial Luxembourger who was everybody’s second choice for the job of Commission president, had requested the report in response to an outcry in the European Parliament. Like Captain Reynaud in Casablanca, MEPs professed to be shocked, shocked at financial mismanagement in their own backyard.
When Santer ducked and weaved over the findings, saying the situation was worse in most member states, MEPs threatened to sack the Commission. Santer appealed to Paris to throw Cresson overboard, but PM Lionel Jospin resisted. In March 1999, the 20-strong Santer Commission resigned en masse.
The downfall of the Santer commission marked an important constitutional moment in the EU’s (then) 42-year history: an elected assembly helped to oust an executive unwilling to accept collective responsibility for the misuse of public funds. The crisis, some hoped at the time, would allow the EU to rebuild the legitimacy and accountability of its institutions.
Four years before the scandal broke, Pascal Lamy, who served as chief of staff and enforcer for Commission President Jacques Delors, told me that the Parliament was best placed to play the legitimacy card and should force a crisis. Europe, he said, could no longer be fashioned by stealth by an elitist cadre of bureaucrats.
Delors’s achievements — the single market, the Maastricht treaty, the blueprint for Economic and Monetary Union — marked a giant leap forward for integration; but the public and the EU’s own institutions had been left behind. Now it was vital for the public and the institutions to “catch up.”
Fast forward to Qatargate, and it is clear how far Europe has changed even if the public is still running to catch up.
The European Parliament has steadily accumulated more powers in terms of amending and writing EU legislation. True, it does not have the power of initiative, which continues to reside with the Commission, but it is more than a “travelling circus” shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg.
This change in status explains why the Qataris (and the Moroccans, who knew something most of us did not know about their football team’s silky skills) allegedly handed over large amounts of cash to people in or connected to the Parliament in order to promote the World Cup.
The Qataris were particularly sensitive about charges of gross abuse of workers and multiple deaths linked to the construction of stadiums. The other touchpoint for media was Qatar’s human rights record, particularly regarding LGBTQ+ rights.
Eva Kaili, the Greek MEP and vice-president, soon emerged as one of the most vocal defenders of Qatar. But her claim that the Gulf state is a “frontrunner in labor rights” after meeting with the country’s labor minister was laughable.
More seriously, Kaili showed up 10 days ago to vote in favor of visa liberalization for Qatar and Kuwait in the Parliament’s justice and home affairs committee — even though she is not a member of the committee, as POLITICO reported.
Such shenanigans highlight the extent to which a culture of impunity still exists in some quarters in Brussels. The biggest culprit is a self-policing Parliament where MEPs can have multiple jobs and double up as lawmakers and de facto lobbyists.
The lack of independent ethical oversight is glaring and reform is long overdue. This will be a task for the new(ish) president of the Parliament Roberta Metsola, who has promised “to shake up this parliament and this town.”
Those with longer memories will point to l’affaire Cresson, which dragged on another seven years. The French establishment closed ranks, and the Belgian courts gave up trying to secure a conviction for fraud.
Finally, the European Commission via former U.K. Labour leader Neil Kinnock tried to secure some redress by stripping Cresson of her €42,300 a year pension. After a two-year legal battle, the Court of Justice of the EU found Cresson guilty of “a breach of a certain gravity” of Article 213 of the EU treaty.
But EU judges said Cresson could be paid her pension on the grounds that the verbal rebuke was punishment enough: “The finding of breach constitutes, of itself, an appropriate penalty.”
As a Cresson ally said at the time: “This is good, this is what we expected.”
Plus ça change.