Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, revealed the EU institution's lax transparency policies by listing 142 gifts she received on a public register for MEPs.
Metsola, a center-right European People's Party MEP from Malta, entered the presents she got in a public database that lawmakers hardly ever update. She did this last week, but in doing so, she missed the deadline for MEPs to report their gifts in connection with 125 of the things on her list.
The defense team for Metsola claimed that her admissions violated years of secrecy maintained by previous Parliament presidents, none of whom ever went so far as to publicly disclose the hundreds of presents received from foreign dignitaries. Because Metsola serves as both the president of the Parliament and a member of the European Parliament, the deadline for MEPs, according to her spokeswoman, does not apply to her by "custom." However, her staff was unable to cite any official documentation supporting this exemption.
Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU and a former MEP, said, "This shows the system is broken. You can’t operate an ethics system on the basis of unwritten rules. It’s good that she’s now done this, but there’s no prize for sticking to the rules."
Metsola's gifts are revealed at a very delicate time for the EU Parliament. In the midst of a police investigation into claims that prominent Brussels figures were implicated in corruption, money laundering, and participation in a criminal organization, the institution is struggling to regain its reputation.
Metsola said, "When a president receives a gift, it is not in my capacity as a member, but as the Parliament. The scenario was different, which means I’m going to list everything which would anyway have been declared internally," she stated when the so-called Qatargate corruption investigation started.
The spokesman for Metsola continued, "She wants to be as open as possible and set an example that other MEPs can follow."
Metsola's admissions, according to Terry Reintke, co-president of the Greens, demonstrated the necessity for an independent EU ethics authority headquartered outside the Parliament. "Transparency should apply to all so it’s good that she’s making it public now," Reintke added.
"I think that it also shows that we just need a much better enforcement of the rules and that we cannot leave everything up to internal scrutiny structures."
Among the gifts given to Metsola were a gold model tower from senior Moroccan politician Naam Mayara, a white dress with golden embroidery from Bahraini parliament speaker Fawzia Zainal, a scarf from French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, Sennheiser wireless earbuds from the German Bundestag, a vase from the Czech presidency of the EU Council, a white blouse from President Maia Sandu of Moldova, and a book about Bruges from the rector of the College of Europe, Federica Mogherini; and a decorative plate from Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Benelux countries.
Champagne, chocolates, biscuits, cake, and dried sausage were also given to Metsola and "served in the course of the Parliament's functions."
Metsola's declarations for 125 of those gifts were submitted after the MEP notification period for those gifts. According to the code of conduct for members of Parliament, gifts must be declared at the latest by the end of the month after the month in which they were received by MEPs.
The scope of the gift rules applies to "any" MEP who represents Parliament in an official capacity, including the president, according to an annex to the code of conduct for MEPs. However, the president herself, or at the very least her office, is the one who needs to be informed about presents.
Previous presidents reportedly had a tendency to declare their presents all at once at the end of their terms, skipping the procedure of listing them on the public register and instead contacting the Parliament's civil service.
The official stated that any declaration made by a president was "done administratively, but was not put on the public register."
Only EPP's Antonio Tajani, who served as president from 2017 to 2019, is known to have disclosed a gift on the public register, according to data. It was a collection of portraits taken by a politician from Portugal.
However, no formal regulation specifically exempts the president from adhering to the procedure governing other MEPs, and the press office of the European Parliament was unable to ascertain where this interpretation of the rules originated from or who was in charge of applying it in this way.
The president of the Parliament is customarily given more flexibility and is only required to disclose presents when her tenure is about to expire, according to a representative for Metsola. The official maintained that Metsola is not the recipient of the gifts; rather, they are donated to the European Parliament as a whole.The spokeswoman continued, Metsola is choosing to be more transparent than she needs to be by making public statements while still in office. She will now routinely update the register gift by gift.
The spokesperson explained that "It is not the same as for MEPs because these are gifts for the European Parliament accepted by the president. She’s breaking with previous practice from previous presidents to do this in a more transparent way, and as they come in, rather than as a big package in the end."
The spokesperson continued, "She wants to be as open as possible and set an example that other MEPs can follow."
The spokesperson responded, "“I don’t know exactly where it’s written but it’s a custom that’s put in place, it’s how previous presidents have done it. In this way it is, what you say, it’s established practice."
Since taking office as president on January 18, 2022, Metsola has been given everything she declared.
Officials from the EU Parliament also noted that in the past there had been reluctance to be aggressive about registering gifts in order to prevent encouraging a culture of competition among lobbyists and MEPs.
Following the explosion of the Qatargate crisis last month, Metsola is attempting to restore the credibility of Parliament. Four people have been held as part of the Belgian prosecutors' investigation, including MEP Eva Kaili, a former vice president of the Parliament, on preliminary corruption accusations while an investigation into alleged influence-buying involving Qatar and Morocco is ongoing.
Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of the European Parliament, has now admitted guilt and agreed to assist the prosecution in exchange for a lighter punishment.
In the wake of Qatargate, Metsola unveiled 14 proposed system upgrades earlier this month, including adjustments to make the gift registry more noticeable on the Parliament's website. She explained her strategy to leading lawmakers in a private meeting.
The only present Metsola has listed as costing more than €150 is one she received in February 2022 from the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates. It is described as an "icon & drawer with individually wrapped dates" in the register. The gift is identified as a "shield representing Expo 2020 logo" on the plaque attached to it. Expo 2020 was a world fair that the UAE hosted in Dubai from October 2021 to March 2022.
All MEPs are required to enter presents into the register, but only 10 lawmakers—including Metsola—have done so as of the middle of this legislative session in 2019.
"Due to covid there were hardly any international activities within the last years. Perhaps that is why there are only a few colleagues who registered presents," wrote Daniel Caspary, a German EPP legislator who disclosed seven gifts, five of which he received while serving as the leader of a Parliament delegation for relations with Southeast Asia.
After consulting a group of MEPs, Metsola, the organization's president, is ultimately in charge of enforcing the code of conduct. The unusual possibility that Metsola may have to decide whether to punish herself for missing the deadline is raised.
By fLEXI tEAM