This Monday, Ursula von der Leyen hosted a press conference with regard to the EU’s newest corruption crisis, proclaiming that “the allegations are of utmost concern, very serious”, breaking her silence on a corruption scandal that may well prove historic in its magnitude and the brazenness of the attempt to polish a certain World Cup hosting nation’s public profile. But what is the EU Commission President referring to exactly? The 1.5 million EUR in cash found in several private homes? Has the alleged backroom lobbying been undertaken by Qatar? The six arrests? The subsequent removal of a Vice President of the European Parliament? 

The answer: all of the above.

Belgian prosecutors have already charged four of those arrested, with the now-former Vice President Kaili arguably the most prominent member in custody. Altogether they are facing charges of criminal organization, corruption and money laundering; all facilitated to boost Qatar’s public image and influence the economic and political agenda of the Parliament in its favor.

The connecting red thread seems to centre around a prominent NGO with deep ties to the Socialists&Democrats group in the EU Parliament, with many implicated figures either sitting on the board of this once lauded NGO or being closely affiliated with it. 

The NGO, aptly named ‘FIGHT IMPUNITY’, boasts prominent members like former High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy  Frederica Mogherini and former French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. FIGHT IMPUNITY had been originally run and set up by Kaili’s partner Franceso Giorgi, who works as a parliamentary assistant to another MEP. The fruits of the NGOs labor were witnessed when the EU Parliament debated whether to condemn Qatar’s human rights record by resolution or through a more agreeable debate. Most members of the Socialists&Democratcs group voted against an all-out resolution with Kaili even going as far as saying that Qatar is a “frontrunner in labor rights” and that frequent attacks on its “frontrunner” status were obviously due to discrimination. 

Many observers had then already pointed to the empirical falsehood of such a statement. Examples of abuse and overt negligence are relatively easy to come by such as when migrant workers recently launched a complaint to FIFA relating to unexplained workers’ deaths and abuse suffered with regard to the preparation for the World Cup in football this year. The list of human rights abuses is extensive considering the fact that 90% of the working population are foreign migrant workers with little to no rights when resident in the Gulf country. 

Perhaps it may seem absurd to us now with the added benefit of hindsight. but this was by far not the only credulous attempt at defending the Gulf nations’ human rights record. Various other members of the Parliament were similarly involved, such as Tarabella. 

Marc Tarabella, an MEP from Belgium and member of the Socialist Party, had his home raided on Saturday evening but was not arrested. He, too, stands accused of covering for the Qataris in Brussels, an accusation that becomes all the more serious when one considers that Tarabella “is the vice chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula” and co-chair of the Parliament’s sports group. 

The revelations reveal how far the Socialists&Democratcs parliamentary group has fallen and degraded itself. For the heavily entrenched social-democratic parties across the EU that have been pushed out of governments near and far, the fight to restore European social democracy to its former days of glory seems to have taken another hit at a time when the EU is experiencing its worst democratic backsliding since the founding of the European Economic Community. 

On a more positive note, however, there has been the recent impetus to fiercely follow through on the promises now made after the Belgian police had begun its series of arrests. 

MEPs and members of the Commission have already begun drafting legislation and regulatory changes that should prevent such flagrant explosions of corruption from occurring again. As reported by Rostra Economica last month, the EU already has a troubled relationship with big business interests. Yet, there are at least some safeguards in place to dissuade undue influence. This is not entirely the case regarding foreign influence by non-EU countries. For example, under current rules, MEPs do not have to report contacts with foreign government representatives publicly, which presents a huge security threat not only to the interests of the EU but to the idea of sovereignty itself. One must only imagine what could happen if a country made use of such oversight with even more sinister aims than the one allegedly pursued by Qatar. 

Further, the resolution aims to address some of the omissions that exist with the personal finances of MEPs being left to a self-regulating committee of lawmakers without real checks and balances. If all goes to plan, then the EU Commission will also spearhead a plan of its own that would finally produce a streamlined and holistic regulatory framework for lobbying rules with EU-wide application. Von der Leyen said that “our institutions need [the] highest standard of independence and integrity”, which the independent ethics body proposed should help foster.

The proposed ethics body would thus cover the lobbying activities of all the major EU institutions, including but not limited to the European Commission, the European Council and European Parliament, as well as the European Central Bank, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Auditors.

Some remain skeptical and caution us to remain vigilant with the proposals the Commission had come up with. EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly criticized von der Leyen for not staying true to her campaign pledges from 2019 when she promised to build an accountable and transparent EU executive. Regarding the planned ethics body, O’Reilly stressed that “what we might be inching towards is something with no teeth, something that will possibly sit there passively, waiting for complaints to come in”

Past failures at drawing a line in the sand make such worrying predictions all the more palpable. However, a failure now would come as an early Christmas present to all the anti-EU forces currently betting on the EU’s inability to reform itself and take all the necessary steps to safeguard not only the legislative process but the EU’s reputation at large. 

This is a make-or-break moment for the EU and a defining moment for the van der Leyen Commission that is finally forced to show teeth when it comes to battling endemic corruption at the top EU levels.