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  • Writer's pictureEmanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti

Picking Out Bad Apples, Unmasking Trojan Horses: The Qatargate and the Ethics of Public Institutions

EP Plenary session - Suspicions of corruption from Qatar and the broader need for transparency and accountability in the European institutions. Photo by Philippe Buissin, © European Union 2022 - Source: EP. Reference no.: EP-141745M.

The shockwave of the “Qatargate” scandal in December 2022 has awaken the European Parliament (EP) and the entire European Union (EU) to the perils of political corruption. The (now deposed) EP Vice President, Eva Kaili, a number of MEPs and parliamentary staffare accused of accepting bribes and representing in return the interests of Qatar and Morocco in the context of the recent FIFA Men’s World Cup. The scandal has also brought the ethics of EU institutions in the spotlight.

To be true, EU institutions have not been historically beyond ethical reproach. The ethical challenges deriving from their alleged democratic deficit, technocratic tendencies, and inefficiency are well known. However, such challenges did not seem to run as deep as shaking the grounds of the ethical credentials of the EU, its representatives and all those who occupy a role in its institutions. After all, it is the EU that sets standards of best practices in potential future member states, warns that the quality of public administration impacts on economic growth and social wellbeing, pushes anti-money-laundering legislation, proposes mechanisms of conditionality to block the flow of EU funds in the face of corruption, and stigmatizes countries that disrespect the rule of law.

The Qatargate is painfully revealing of how such postures rest in fact on shaky grounds. The sporadic scandals of revolving doors and conflicts of interest had already lifted a yellow flag. The Qatargate has turned it into a bright red one.

The first reactions coming from within the EU institutions have been of anger and resentment for those few bad apples “who had put at risk the good work of so many,” to say it in the words of Commissioner Ylva Johansson. But while shock leaves way to reflection, it seems that the Qatargate may be just the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper dysfunction affecting the institutional architecture of the EU and the conduct of its staff and representatives.

The Qatargate has triggered considerable legal and media scrutiny, which is slowly revealing the deep-running relations that the EU and some humanitarian NGOs entertain with repressive regimes. The interest in cultivating fruitful economic relations with such regimes has contributed, among other things, to the whitewashing of the reputations of dictators, who were presented to the world as progressive human rights champions, deserving of conspicuous investments. Bribes, influence trading, and money laundering now appear as a relapsing pathology of the lobby system in Brussels.

The Qatargate has thus worked as an eyeopener that the uncorrupted ethos of EU institutions was in fact an image built on a generalized lack of investigation. As soon as the Belgian authorities—the only ones with the legal power to investigate in Brussels—started to search offices, documents, and private houses, corruption emerged as an entrenched pathological feature of the EU lobby system.

A common idea behind these proposals seems to be that internal scrutiny and accountability measures cannot work.

Worried that lobby scandals may cause an irreparable breach of citizens’ trust in the EU institutions, EP President Metsola is planning an ambitious set of quick-hit anticorruption reforms. Proposed action includes the introduction of external ethical oversight, instruments for legal prosecution, an improvement of the transparency measures. A common idea behind these proposals seems to be that internal scrutiny and accountability measures cannot work.

Admittedly, internal anticorruption measures may not work on their own. External and legal measures are important props for institutional action, as the Qatargate and its aftershock clearly indicate. However, delegating the responsibility of institutional functioning to external oversight bodies and legal authorities risks creating the conditions for more corruption to occur. The risk is to develop an arsenal that ultimately misfires. The risk, as we see it, is in fact twofold. The first risk is that rules and external control be perceived a “straightjacket to elude;” the second concerns the ethical disengagement of officeholders. Both risks become clearer upon reflecting on what corruption is.

The risk is to develop an arsenal that ultimately misfires.[...] rules and external control be perceived a “straightjacket to elude”.

In broad brushes, corruption is a kind of accountability deficit. In public institutions, standardly, corruption manifests itself when officeholders use the power entrusted to them in ways that are not accountable with reference to the power mandate associated with their role within the institution. The Qatargate indicates that corruption only seldomly takes the shape of formal rule-breaking, unlike in cases of fraud, which concern matters subject to strict legal oversight. Surely, that an MEP accepts bribes in exchange for paying lip service to a particular cause is normally against the rule and corrupted. The power mandate of an MEP may not and does not include using public power to favor any specific country. But there are cases where, even absent a formal rule, officeholders may use their entrusted power in corrupt ways. Think, for example, of the hardships of assessing conflicts of interest in cases of nepotism (which are not always against the law), or influence trading, when no money but personal favors are involved.

So, the first risk related to a predominantly external legal anticorruption action is to focus only on a portion of corruption instances. Corruption and anticorruption are not always just a matter of formal rule-breaking and rule-following. They are, also and importantly, a matter of ethics of office and how the officeholders themselves understand their work together and interpret the rules of office, which often have a general formulation requiring some specification for implementation. No matter how well-designed formal rules are, and how stringently they are enforced, unless the officeholders develop a pro-office attitude when they act upon and interpret institutional rules, corruption may work as a Trojan horse that undercuts institutional functioning.

To adopt a pro-office attitude means that the officeholders should realize that they partake in the same system and that they can only fail or succeed together. For such a realization to occur, institutional rules and procedures should not be—or be seen—as straightjackets to elude. Instead, they should be seen as general guidelines that find specification in the officeholders’ action, for example as concerns the ways to deal with the lobbies’ pressure. In other words, anticorruption should not be interpreted simply as a surveillance system. It should be conceived as a way to uphold the well-functioning of institutions, protect and facilitate the officeholders’ action, especially when it concerns roles that are highly exposed to corruption.

[...] officeholders should realize that they partake in the same system and that they can only fail or succeed together. [...] [A]nticorruption should not be interpreted simply as a surveillance system.

Concretely, anticorruption could include such actions as the officeholders’ ethical training. The aim is to promote a self-critical stance towards the rules of conduct that characterize the officeholders’ mandate, and the uses of power of office in relation to those rules. The gist of training public officeholders to an ethics of office accountability is to enable them to make a more responsible use of their power of office and to check upon and sustain each other across such uses. This can be done by institutionalizing internal practices of answerability, through which the officeholders may mutually assess and possibly correct institutional action. The Qatargate suggests an important lacuna in this respect. The initial internal reactions of dismissal of the whole affair as a matter of few bad apples suggest how MEPs are in a sense out of touch with the reality of their own institution. What is more, they indicate a low degree of engagement with the institution’s internal dynamics, where the left hand does not seem know what the right hand is doing. Practices that are currently defining the “freedom of mandate” and partisan confidentiality – often invoked by MEPs as a measure of safeguard of their political role – are in fact an important obstacle to building an effective system of internal accountability.

A corollary of this claim is that officeholders should engage and take the working of institutional action in their own hands. This consideration points to the second risk related to a predominantly external legal anticorruption action. An external oversight body may offer important props to institutional action, as the recent legal and media scrutiny of the Qatargate suggests. However, making external control the main anticorruption tool risks disengaging officeholders, by curbing their rightful discretion and, ultimately, communicating a measure of mistrust towards their action (which may lead to worrisome self-fulling prophecies of misconduct).

Officeholders’ discretion is not the problem, and indeed attempts to “automatize” the public function would impoverish its contribution to institutional action. Exercises of discretion are in fact a background condition of institutional action, which should be accepted, understood, and above all exercised with care. Office accountability is the best insurance that discretion is exercised consciously, responsibly, and in ways that may uphold (and not curtail) institutional action. In this vein, a possible way forward includes the revision of the officeholders’ codes of ethical conduct, so as to include principles and guidelines for the interactions among the officeholders and between them and external actors. Such codes should not be yet another collection of rules with which officeholders should mechanically comply. They should rather be drafted in a critical and participatory way to be an expression of the officeholders’ self-understanding as a group of institutional agents, responsible for the ethical quality of their institution. Anticorruption may thus take the shape of an initiative to set standards of conduct and call the officeholders to answer for their conduct primarily from within the institution.

Necessary reforms should be premised on understanding how corruption is in fact a Trojan horse that undermines institutional functioning from within.

The Qatargate and its media resonance have imposed a general reflection on many structural aspects of the EU institutions and their functioning. It will be, however, a missed opportunity for reform if, once public outrage fades away, institutional interventions are limited to marginal short-term actions to pick out bad apples, primarily by means of legal measures and under external control. Necessary reforms should be premised on understanding how corruption is in fact a Trojan horse that undermines institutional functioning from within. The resources to unmask it and counteract it should, therefore, also come from inside an institution, whose action should be sustained by an ethics of office accountability.

Emanuela Ceva is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Geneva. Maria Paola Ferretti is Professor ad Interim for Political Philosophy and Theory at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main. They are the authors of Political Corruption: The Internal Enemy of Public institutions (OUP 2021).

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