March 4. 2024. 5:34

The Daily

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Qatargate, Morocco and the EU

By taking the right steps, the EU can mitigate the reputational harm caused by the Qatargate corruption scandal. There is still time for the European Parliament to tighten up rules and prevent conflicts of interest, writes Sir Michel Leigh.

Qatargate appears to have knocked the EU from its pedestal as the world’s human rights and rule-of-law champion. Brussels holds strongman regimes from Hungary to China accountable for their democratic failings. Its reputed “soft power” aims to influence others by the example it sets.

Little wonder conservative nationalist leaders with an authoritarian bent could scarcely contain their glee at the Qatargate revelations, mainly because most of the scandal’s European protagonists are socialists.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, smarting from the withholding of EU funds because of democratic shortcomings in his country, said the European Parliament should be abolished. Qatargate received saturation coverage by government-friendly media in Hungary and Poland.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has repeatedly called on EU institutions to “be open and beyond reproach on ethics, transparency and integrity if Europeans are to have faith in the Union”.

In 2019, she gave Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová responsibility for setting up “an independent ethics body common to all EU institutions”. Yet, when Qatargate broke three years later, this proposal remained bogged down among EU institutions.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, a conservative politician from Malta, said the legislature was under attack in Qatargate and blamed “malign actors linked to autocratic third countries”.

But critics see this as “self-inflicted damage”, as many parliamentarians resist adding a new enforceable ethics code to present rules on avoiding conflicts of interests and declaring outside interests.

Unregistered lobbying and dubious activities by nondemocratic countries using joint “friendship” groups have proliferated. That, of course, is not unknown in national parliaments, but accusations against the EU’s parliament of cronyism and horse trading have grown in recent years.

According to Charles Michel, the European Council president, the effect of the latest scandal is “dramatic and damaging to the credibility of the European Union,” making it harder to handle Europe’s multiple crises.

The EU’s soft power, leveraging Europe’s attractiveness to countries worldwide, is unlikely to suffer significantly from Qatargate, considering the prevalence of corruption elsewhere.

Political realism suggests that Qatargate may have a few lingering repercussions. Qatar is the EU’s second-largest supplier of liquified natural gas after the United States, and its importance in Europe’s energy security will grow as pipeline gas from Russia dwindles.

A Qatar diplomat reacted to the Belgian corruption investigation by commenting that it could negatively affect relations and gas supplies if allowed to get out of hand, implying that Qatar could follow Saudi Arabia and other regional rivals in weaponising oil and gas.

France and Germany are the main recipients of Qatar’s foreign direct investment in the EU, with vast funds flowing to iconic corporations, construction projects, SMEs and social projects.

France offers significant tax exemptions to attract Qatari funds and is the second-largest arms exporter to Qatar after the US. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Qatar in September 2022, and French President Emmanuel Macron went to see France compete in the FIFA World Cup final.

Qatar owns France’s top football team, Paris St. Germain, and reports have swirled since 2017 of an alleged French role in awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

Italy’s former Prime Minister Mario Draghi reiterated Qatar’s importance as an energy, economic and military partner during his period in office. Qatar became a major client for Italian naval vessels in 2017, with an order worth €5 billion. Draghi’s successor, Giorgia Meloni, angrily rejected any implication that Italy was responsible for Qatargate.

Qatar is one of 17 non-NATO allies of the US and host to the forward headquarters of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) covering the Middle East and large parts of Asia. Clearly, Qatar is not a country to be trifled with by European leaders, and Qatargate is an embarrassment they want to forget.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna visited Morocco on December 15-16, after the scandal involving Qatar and Morocco broke, to prepare for a visit to Rabat by the French president early in 2023. France’s goal is to normalise relations, following a period of tensions, amid overtures from Paris to Morocco’s regional rival Algeria.

As a sweetener, France lifted visa restrictions on Moroccan citizens before Colonna’s visit, even though Rabat had not met the conditions set by Paris.

The French Foreign Ministry described relations with Morocco in effusive terms, referring to “the exceptional bilateral partnership between Morocco and France, which is characterised, above all, by very close, rich human ties spanning the Mediterranean”.

Macron has gone further than any of his predecessors in apologising for the excesses of French colonial rule in Morocco. Migration issues, social tensions and the many French citizens of Moroccan origin incline him to treat Morocco cautiously.

Realpolitik rules out any risk that Morocco’s alleged role in bribing members of the European Parliament will cast a shadow over bilateral relations.

Recent revelations follow two troubled decades of democratic governance in the EU and the European Parliament. They come a year before parliamentary elections when the EU’s democratic legitimacy is widely questioned.

EU leaders have not pushed back sufficiently against lax practices in their parliament over the past three years, and this new scandal could detract from the EU’s achievements affecting voter turnout and support for moderate parties in the 2024 elections.

But there is still time for Parliament to tighten up rules to prevent conflicts of interest and declare outside interests before next year’s elections. The existing code of conduct could be extended to former MEPs and assistants.

The body could do with a “cooling off period”, as in the Commission, during which former members cannot lobby for interest groups related to their previous official responsibilities. Qatargate will also probably give new vigour to work on an independent ethics body for all EU institutions.

On balance, the Qatargate setback could counter the corrosion of the EU’s democratic legitimacy and strengthen European diplomacy. Beyond its borders, the EU seems likely to pursue European values, such as political accountability and geopolitical interests, including energy security, more pragmatically, avoiding moral lectures.