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Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has admitted the allegations of corruption leveled against Eva Kaili, vice-president of the European Parliament, are of “utmost concern” following a string of arrests. Ms von der Leyen called for the creation of an independent ethics body covering all of the bloc’s institutions, in the wake of the announcement by Belgian prosecutors that they had charged four people over the weekend with corruption, being part of a criminal group and money laundering in connection with a major investigation into influence peddling at the European Union’s parliament.
The assembly’s Vice-President Eva Kaili of Greece has already been relieved of her duties.
While authorities have so far identified the Gulf country suspected of offering cash or gifts to officials at the parliament in exchange for political favors, several members of the assembly and some Belgian media have linked the investigation to Qatar, whose foreign ministry denies any wrongdoing.
Ms von der Leyen described the accusations against Ms Kaili as “of utmost concern, very serious”, and warned that they were threatening the confidence that EU citizens put in the 27-nation bloc’s institutions.
She told reporters: “This confidence and trust in our institutions need the highest standards of independence and integrity.”
As lobbying activities at EU level lack comprehensive regulation, she said the independent ethics body she was proposing would not only cover activities at the Commission, Council and Parliament, but also at the European Central Bank, European Court of Justice and European Court of Auditors.
Ursula von der Leyen admitted the allegations against Eva Kaili were of the “utmost concern”
Eva Kaili has been suspended from her vice-presidential role
Ms von der Leyen added: “The principles of having such an ethics body where there are very clear rules on what has to be checked, how and when and what has to be published, how and when would be a big step forward.”
The federal prosecutor’s office, without identifying any individual, said four of six people detained on Friday have been charged. Two other individuals have been released.
Prosecutors have confirmed that one member of the Parliament was arrested although they refused to confirm it is Ms Kaili. They said they suspect “the payment of large sums of money, or the offer of significant gifts” to people holding strategic positions at the European Parliament capable of influencing decisions.
In Athens, Greek government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said Ms Kaili’s situation “is a very serious case that is in the hands of Belgian justice.”
It created “one more rift in the credibility and trust in European institutions and the European Parliament”, he acknowledged.
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Ursula von der Leyen speaking in Brussels today
The scandal broke as the EU Parliament began its final plenary session of the year in Strasbourg, France, later on Monday.
Manon Aubry, the Left group’s co-president at Parliament, said that her group will ask for a debate and a resolution on the scandal, with the aim of implementing “way stricter rules.”
She tweeted: “The battle continues: Our democracy is not for sale.”
European Parliament president Roberta Metsola relieved Ms Kaili, a 44-year-old former TV news anchor, of her duties over the weekend. Ms Kaili was also suspended by her party in Greece and the EU assembly’s Socialists and Democrats group on Friday after the raids, in which police also seized about €600,000 euros (£515,000) in cash, computer equipment and mobile telephones.
Ms Kaili’s party in Greece, the Socialist Pasok-Movement for Change, publicly distanced itself from remarks she made in the EU parliament last month praising World Cup hosts Qatar.
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Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, took the decision to suspend Ms Kaili
The Middle Eastern nation has come under heavy international pressure to introduce labor reforms in recent years as it sought to build new World Cup stadiums in record time, often using migrant workers who toiled for long hours under harsh conditions.
The EU and Qatar have strengthened their economic relations since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. As European countries have supported Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in February, Moscow has slashed supplies of natural gas used to heat homes, generate electricity and power industry.
This has created an energy crisis which is fueling inflation and increasing pressure on companies as prices have risen, with the EU looking for alternatives to buy liquefied natural gas on a long-term basis, notably in Qatar.
In April, the European Commission also proposed to lift visa requirements for short stays in the region for nationals of Qatar.
Asked whether Belgian authorities had been in touch with the European Commission as part of their investigation, von der Leyen said she had no clue.
She added: “I would have to ask my staff.”