November 29, 2023


we will never forget

How states use corruption to make politics

Original title : Wie Staaten mit Bestechung Politik machen

Source : TagesSchau by Silvia Stöber

The scandal in the European Parliament shows once again how dangerous corruption can be when States want to use it to advance their interests. Corruption as a tool of foreign policy is a growing risk.

The Belgian police saw the danger in front of him. This is why she arrested Eva Kaili on December 9, when she enjoyed immunity as Vice-President of the European Parliament. Investigators had observed how his father wanted to remove a suitcase with money from his apartment. They found €750,000 on him and €150,000 on Kaili and her companion, all in cash.

“Obviously Belgian justice is doing what the European Parliament has not done,” said Prime Minister Alexander de Croo. Admittedly, the European Parliament has many means of regulating its own working methods. But clearly the system of self-regulation was not enough: indeed, the transparency requirements of the European Parliament are considered important. However, organizations such as Transparency International criticize that this is still not enough. There is also a lack of control and penalties for breaking the rules. It was only a matter of time before the next scandal happened, said consultant Victor Teixera.

Bribery as a means of foreign policy

Allegations and the burden of proof obviously weigh heavily. Kaili has since been relieved of her functions and positions. The Brussels public prosecutor’s office raises the suspicion that a “Gulf state” – according to investigators Qatar – wanted to influence economic and political decisions with considerable sums of money and gifts. Even if the presumption of innocence applies until a conviction, her commitment to Qatar fits into this picture. In addition to a positive image for the emirate in the run-up to the soccer World Cup, it was also about political decisions, including visa liberalization for the Qataris and the lucrative landing permit for Qatar Airways planes at all airports in the EU.

Not only this case shows that bribery – used strategically – can be a means of foreign policy. Azerbaijan, for example, also relied on a combination: the organization of international events to cultivate its image and to influence members of the Council of Europe and politicians in EU countries. This was about support for their own foreign policy and also about playing down the authoritarian style of government towards their own people. To this day, President Ilham Aliyev points out that the Council of Europe rejected a critical report on democracy and human rights in 2013. In this context, the Italian conservative Luca Volontè and two Azerbaijanis were sentenced to four years in prison in 2021 for corruption. The Munich public prosecutor’s office is still investigating against the CDU politician Axel Fischer, the CSU politician Eduard Lintner and his son and the ex-employee of a lobby company, as she announced on request. Lintner is said to have received around four million euros from Azerbaijan between 2008 and 2016 and passed part on to members of parliament in Belgium and Germany. The funds are said to have flowed through British letterbox companies and accounts in the Baltic States.

The services of the helpers

Lintner and Volontè are said to have been mediators in this affair. According to media reports, in the current case involving the European Parliament, this could apply to two Italians: former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi. Accordingly, Panzeri probably also received money and gifts from Morocco, in the distribution of which he is said to have involved his family. The American Paul Manafort also acted as a busy mediator in other cases. Donald Trump’s ex-campaign manager lobbied for Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. He also hired former top European politicians, the “Habsburg Group”, for this purpose. The FBI investigated him for money laundering and concealment of his lobbying activities, among other things. After being convicted of tax evasion and bank fraud, Trump pardoned him in 2020.

The inconspicuous international financial transfer, legal support and various forms of lobbying have long since been professionalized in such a way that in Great Britain, for example, an entire “industry” has emerged with lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and PR people. These are wealthy Russians with ties to the leadership circle around Vladimir Putin at the service – according to the Russia report of the British Parliament’s Intelligence Committee on influencing the 2017 Brexit vote. With their help, these Russians managed to build up influence in the British establishment over the years.

Europe must protect itself better

While the war against Ukraine and the resulting sanctions are causing at least some problems for Russian oligarchs, opportunities are opening up for other states. They bring themselves into play as alternative suppliers not only of gas and oil, but also of “green energy”. At the forefront: Qatar and Azerbaijan. Investigations in Australia and New Zealand, where China tried to use donations to influence elections, also show how urgent it is to protect against foreign interference through corruption.

The awareness is already there. In the current scandal, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, and the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, reacted immediately by announcing measures. With only two dissenting votes, the European Parliament voted on December 15 for new anti-corruption measures: Among other things, the lobby register is to be expanded and an ethics committee set up. However, experts such as the director of Transparency International, Michiel van Hulten, are calling for a fundamental reform. Stricter rules are also needed for former members of parliament and commissioners who, as mediators, can use knowledge and contacts profitably for other states and organizations. Many cases also show that corruption is repeatedly associated with money laundering via offshore locations and letterbox companies. In the USA, one of the world’s most important places for letterbox companies, the US Congress passed the first measures for more transparency in the registration of companies even before President Joe Biden took office.

Another important issue is the reversal of the burden of proof: authorities can freeze suspicious assets until the owners can prove their legal origin. In Great Britain, the “Unexplained Wealth Order” (Unexplained Wealth Order) was introduced, although its implementation in practice proves to be difficult. In Italy, the reversal of the burden of proof for mafia assets has been in effect since the 1980s. Germany still lags behind in many areas when it comes to transparency. Experts see the introduction of a lobby register for the Bundestag as only a first step – which also only took place as a result of the Azerbaijan and mask scandal.