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Momentum for EU ethics cop sags despite scandal

BRUSSELS — Sacks of cash and free flights from autocratic governments don’t seem to have been enough to save the EU’s flagship integrity initiative from political inertia.

A forthcoming Commission blueprint for an overarching and independent ethics panel will not include the power to investigate wrongdoing by EU officials, Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová told top MEPs in a closed-door meeting last week, according to a confidential readout obtained by POLITICO.

Her plans to limit the scope of the inter-institutional ethics body to a “general framework on ethics and standards” common to all institutions — while then leaving those institutions to decide for themselves how the framework applies to them — drew sharp condemnation from advocates of a stronger enforcement mechanism.

“What Jourová outlines has nothing to do with previous debates on the [ethics] body,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund in a statement. He slammed it as “label fraud.”

Freund, the MEP in charge of the Parliament’s position on the ethics body, added: “If we keep going with the existing system of self-policing, the culture of impunity will remain. Then it’s just a question of time until we have our next Qatar-Gate.”

Nearly six months after Qatargate, the reality is that little has changed in the ethics body discussion. The plan Jourová described to MEPs, expected this month, diverges little from a “light touch” vision she described in November: a panel with no investigative powers and whose influence, if any, would be based on benchmarks rather than sanctions.

Jourová’s team has been trying to win political buy-in from the nine relevant institutions for much of the past year. Yet they’ve been stymied by the wide variety of authorities and ethical codes involved, searching in vain for a solution relevant for the nine varying institutions.

These include not only the legislating institutions — the democratically-elected Parliament, the Commission bureaucracy and the Council accountable to national laws — and also the EU’s banking institutions and courts. (The Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, at least, have expressed enthusiasm.)

Even within institutions, Jourová faces hurdles. The Parliament plenary did throw its support behind the idea of an independent EU ethics body with the power to investigate breaches in 2021. Yet in reality, this was primarily left-leaning support: the vast majority of MEPs from the center-right European People’s Party abstained from the vote.

Sharper conservatives rejected the idea. Objections centered around maintaining elected parliamentarians’ freedom of mandate and legal concerns around investigative powers.

Qatargate hasn’t erased those qualms. German EPP MEP Sven Simon, the center-right’s point person on the matter, “disagreed with many provisions” of the Parliaments’ resolutions last week, “especially objecting to investigative powers” during Jourová’s exchange with MEPs during the Conference of President’s meeting.

Simon backed the idea of a standard-setting body, according to the confidential readout, prepared by the Socialists & Democrats secretariat and viewed by POLITICO. (Simon’s office declined to comment on private discussions.)

While politicians’ views are entrenched, so are the lawyers’. The Commission’s legal service said the EU treaty’s would have to be changed to give the ethics body investigative powers, Jourová told MEPs. That’s in line with her office’s view last year, though it’s vociferously challenged by advocates.

Freund laid responsibility at the feet of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who, he said, promised the ethics body in 2019 as she sought MEPs’ support for her current job.

“The EU ethics body was a central campaign promise of von der Leyen,” Freund said. “She’s about to break it.”


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