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EU leaders attempt to downplay Qatar scandal while they still can

Some have presented the European Parliament corruption investigation as a problem that just affects Brussels and not the rest of the EU.

For once, the European Parliament will not be a spectator sport.

A corruption scandal has enraged the Parliament just before EU leaders convene for one of their regular summits on Thursday. And the startling disclosures — suitcases of cash, potential influence peddling involving Qatar and Morocco — have reversed the script.

Normally, when EU leaders meet, the President of the European Parliament attends with little attention. Typically, the apparition is fleeting. The press conference is just partially filled.

As the media continues to cover the charges swirling around the EU's democratically elected legislature, Parliament President Roberta Metsola will arrive at the European Council on Thursday morning amid a sea of cameras. She is scheduled to brief the EU's 27 national leaders on the worrisome details that have resulted in the arrest of at least one MEP on suspicion of corruption.

However, most EU leaders see it as "not my concern."

“Really this is an issue for the Parliament,” said one European Council official. “We expect to get a debrief from Metsola, but nothing more.”

The European Council's instinct to avoid claims of misconduct at the core of the EU might be self-defeating – and create long-term problems for the EU.

“The potential reputational damage here can be immense,” Petros Fassoulas, secretary general of the pro-EU organization European Movement International. “Most people don’t distinguish between one institution or another. The issue is that once you put the word corruption next to any European institution, people automatically associate the EU with the act of corruption.”

The 2024 European elections loom in the distance, the once-every-five-years exercise that is the EU's closest thing to a bloc-wide poll.

Anti-EU forces have typically used European elections to make their concerns heard. Indeed, several of the EU's most vocal critics, such as Britain's Nigel Farage and France's Marine Le Pen, have garnered notoriety in the European Parliament before returning home to disseminate their Euroskeptic message.

There is now concern that the Qatar crisis, which has shaken Parliament, may further tarnish the institution.

“This scandal risks playing straight into the hands of anti-European, anti-democratic forces,” Fassoulas said. “It’s vital that the EU gets ahead of this, especially in light of the European elections in 2024.”

Apart from Metsola's scheduled briefing to EU leaders on Thursday morning, there is no other mention of the issue on the formal agenda for Thursday's meeting. According to one diplomat, the leaders' reaction may be influenced by what she says.

Other concerns that EU leaders must address are numerous.

Deep divisions have emerged over the European Commission's plan to counter packages of US subsidies that they fear are luring investment away from Europe, countries are still unable to agree on how (or whether) to cap gas prices, and Romania and Bulgaria remain enraged that they have been denied entry into the Schengen free-travel zone.

Furthermore, a multi-layered agreement to unlock € 18 billion in aid for Ukraine and finalise a minimum corporation tax rate hit snags late Wednesday after Poland opposed the idea.

However, the sharp spotlight being cast on the EU's relationship with Qatar may be unsettling for many countries, especially if calls arise to reconsider lucrative aviation accords with Doha.

Several EU states have increased their energy dependency on the Gulf state as they seek to wean themselves off Russian gas. In recent weeks, German companies signed a 15-year agreement to purchase liquefied natural gas from Qatar. On Wednesday, Hungary announced that the MVM energy group would begin negotiations with QatarEnergy to purchase LNG gas.

When asked if the suspicions of probable cash-for-influence infiltration of Parliament should force the EU to reconsider additional commercial connections with Qatar, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sidestepped the subject on Wednesday, focusing on the specifics of the ongoing Belgian case.

“What needs to be reviewed is which accusations are to be made against those who are now confronted with the accusation of having been bribed, and of course this also applies to those who were on the other side, meaning those who bribed,” he told reporters in Brussels.

Scholz's economy minister, Robert Habeck, stated specifically on Tuesday evening that the ongoing discoveries should not change his country's gas-purchasing plans.

"These are two distinct things," Habeck explained.

However, not all EU leaders wish to avoid the topic.

On his way to an EU conference with Southeast Asian countries on Wednesday, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the public was "shocked" by what had happened, and he urged for the creation of an EU-wide authority to monitor the institutions, including Parliament.

“The whole idea of an overseeing body to ensure compliance and adherence to ethics is required,” he said. “Obviously, due process has to take place but nonetheless, people must have confidence in European Union institutions, and particularly the European Union Parliament, because it has increased its powers over the years.”

Other leaders agreed with many Parliament members this week that the corruption charges do not speak to a systematic problem, but rather to a few bad apples. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas admitted Wednesday in Brussels that the findings were damaging "not only to the European Union but also to European politicians."

“I must confirm and say we are not all like this,” she added, noting that having these cases out in public may help prevent them in the future.


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