The bloc's spin campaign is whirring into action
When news broke of an investigation by Belgian police into corruption in the European Parliament, it was assumed that the EU would be forced to face up to institutional failings — and even, perhaps, to learn a little humility along the way. The investigation has already seen four people charged, including a European Parliament vice-president, and around €1.5 million in cash seized by investigators.
The money was allegedly used by Qatar to buy influence among MEPs, in a system of corruption which also implicates NGOs and lobbyists. There have been hints that Morocco also used shady connections between politicians and lobby groups to buy influence in Brussels.
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But the willingness of some MEPs to accept bribes from foreign powers has simultaneously given the EU a perfect PR angle for distracting attention. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola solemnly declared that “the European Parliament is under attack” after news of the investigation broke.
The audacity of the statement was staggering. The corruption scandal has exposed alarmingly lax standards of accountability and ethics in the European Parliament, but according to Metsola it’s the institution — and by implication those in it — that needs protecting.
“The enemies of democracy, for whom the very existence of this parliament is a threat, will stop at nothing,” Metsola warned. “Malign actors linked to autocratic third countries” have, she added, “weaponised NGOs, unions, individuals, assistants and Members of the European Parliament in an effort to subdue our processes.”
Credit where it’s due – the statement is the work of a clever crisis communications manager. It subtly turns the scandal on its head, portraying MEPs as lambs led to the slaughter by unscrupulous foreign powers. The latent xenophobia can’t be missed: according to this version of events, corrupt practices perverting the inherent purity of Brussels institutions must have originated outside Europe.
And in recent days, there have been more attempts to deflect attention away from key parts of the story. Based on what’s currently known of the investigation, there is a clear Left-wing link between those implicated. So, when an investigation into a member of the centre-Right European People’s Party group was announced, Left-wing politicians and journalists seized upon the news with delight, presenting it as proof of equal culpability across the political spectrum.
But, again, spin was at play. The investigation into the Right-wing MEP pertains to fraud in parliamentary allowances and is unconnected to the influence buying scandal. It is further evidence of poor ethical standards throughout the European Parliament — but it does not change the Left-wing focus of the wider institutional corruption scandal.
The European Commission, where the real power lies, has not yet been touched by the investigation. But the tragedy of the affair for Europeans is that while MEPs provide the scant excuse for democratic accountability in Brussels, an anti-democratic culture of bribery and improbity appears to have been allowed to thrive among them. And in portraying corruption as an “attack” by external forces, rather than evidence of institutional failings, EU leaders only dig the hole of dishonesty deeper.