Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a new ethics watchdog to enforce anti-corruption measures. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen committed to implementing the resolution swiftly.
Then, nothing happened for over a year.
Last week, myself and two colleagues presented a research paper at the European Parliament about the urgent need for an independent ethics body. We decried the Commission’s foot-dragging in implementing the 2021 resolution and offered some advice on how to set up an effective agency, drawing on lessons from the United States.
On my flight back home to the United States, news broke that demonstrated yet again the urgent need for a serious ethics agency. This news also helped explain why so many powerful forces in Brussels have offered tendentious objections to a robust ethics enforcer.
Belgian authorities have conducted over 20 raids across Brussels to seize evidence that MEPs took bribes and engaged in money laundering on behalf of Qatar. Authorities say they’ve seized more than €1 million in cash and allege that the crime ring extends all the way up to European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili. Four people so far have been charged with money laundering and corruption.
There should no longer be any doubt that the Parliament must reform its ethics practices if it wants to maintain any popular legitimacy in the eyes of European citizens. Indeed, as my colleague Alberto Alemanno wrote for this website last week, the scandal “has unveiled an inconvenient, and for most Europeans already obvious, truth.”
Disgraceful as it may be, the emerging “Qatargate” scandal does provide a clear opportunity to seize on the first lesson from our paper: rise to the challenge after a scandal to regain the public’s trust.
In the United States, our most foundational ethics laws emerged in the 1970s after the public learned about the extent of the Nixon Administration’s many scandals (collectively remembered under the metonym Watergate). The post-Watergate reforms included laws mandating disclosure of campaign contributions, setting limits on lobbying activity, and requiring financial divestments for executive branch appointees.
These laws were serious, and addressed many of the vulnerabilities that Nixon’s rapacious greed and overwhelming political paranoia had made evident. Additionally, Watergate bred a new interest in government ethics within civil society and the media. Watchdog groups and political journalists began trawling through these new disclosure documents regularly, and politicians realized that anything obviously suspicious would get caught. Moreover, they saw corruption would have legal, or at least electoral, consequences.
This bred, for a time, an improved culture of compliance toward the ethics norms of the day. Generating that culture is perhaps the most important factor for breeding ethical behavior in government. Unfortunately, it’s something no individual person or institution can do on their own.
Everyone likes to badmouth politicians, but the truth is that very few government officials enter politics with the explicit goal of taking bribes, breaking laws, and undermining people’s faith in democracy. But people, even politicians, are social creatures. We respond to the culture around us. If officials see their peers doing something untoward and not facing consequences for it, then over time, many start to feel like fools for choosing not to indulge themselves.
If civil servants come to see ostensibly “career” jobs in government as resume-building exercises — the thing a smart young lawyer has to do before they “make some real money” — then actually treating public service as a lifetime commitment to societal good begins to seem silly. The same is true for overt criminality: if it’s pervasive in government culture, it makes strict adherence to the law seem pointless.
However, if a government can breed a culture of compliance with strong ethical norms, that can be a far better preventative tool than all the investigators in the world. People want their elected leaders to act ethically and responsibly in the first place, not because they’re afraid of getting caught, but because it’s the right thing to do.
The story of how ethics broke down in the United States is instructive as well. There are many authors, not the least of which is the staggering increase in economic inequality.
But when it comes to explicit tit-for-tat corruption, the story gets a bit more granular. The US created a panoply of complex, tailored rules for different institutions to be overseen by a series of officials without adequate powers. And complex rules offer corrupting forces opportunities.
Sure, handing a lawmaker a bag full of money is prohibited, but what about treating him to a fancy dinner and VIP entertainment, trips and junkets? And hinting at a job after leaving office?
Over time, the hard rules prohibiting certain corrupt acts have grown less relevant to how influence flows in Washington. Ethics offices scattered across the federal bureaucracy have tried to keep up. But does anyone really expect a low status lawyer assigned to do ethics work to rein in misbehavior by a senior politician or official? Meanwhile, moneyed forces found creative ways to dance around the hard restrictions.
Today, Washington leaders inhabit an insular, bizarre world. To any onlooker, politicians partying at night with former colleagues paid to influence them by day seems clearly anti-democratic. But politicians and officials turn round and say “well, it’s not illegal, is it?”
Donald Trump’s flagrant lawlessness provides the exception that proves this rule: many D.C. elites disdained him not so much for his self-dealing, but for his personal tastelessness and lack of subtlety. They don’t object to his ethics as much as his aesthetics — perhaps because in him, they see aspects of themselves they’d prefer to ignore.
In any case, the epidemic of so-called “soft corruption” in American government offers a second lesson: no one can predict and prevent every loophole.
But EU officials can try to foster that crucial culture of accountability. And over time, this can also help European citizens to expect more from their MEPs. In turn, this may help the people of Europe to have a bit more faith in the EU, instead of simply expecting the rich to profit and the poor to get poorer.
When it comes to actually writing anti-corruption laws, the most important lesson from the US is to make them sweeping and simple. The more caveats, conditions, exceptions, and the like are written into the law, the more opportunities there will be for corporate lawyers and lobbyists to exploit loopholes.
Moreover, writing rules alone does not make them credible. What punishment, if any, the guilty parties ultimately face in the Qatargate scandal will have an enormous impact on whether European citizens can trust the Parliament. After the 2008 financial crisis, the United States government only prosecuted one mid-level banker for crimes mostly unrelated to the systemic fraud that shook the global economy. That sent a message about elite impunity.
This does not mean that corrupt officials should face draconian or overzealous punishment. But banning corrupt officials from participation in EU politics, massive fines, reasonable jail sentences, restructuring or shuttering corrupt businesses when relevant, and so on should all be regular features of EU ethics enforcement. If they are not, then right-wing populists will benefit and beckon.