Foreign interference probe in Europe should terrify Washington

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — While all eyes were on the FIFA football World Cup in Qatar earlier this month, Belgian authorities were raiding the European Parliament itself and 20 other locations, including private residences of parliamentarians. What reportedly started out as an investigation into Chinese and Russian foreign influence on the European Union institutions that set top-down laws for all of Europe, uncovered something else.

Within days, authorities were releasing photos of the hundreds of thousands of euros allegedly seized at the homes of EU employees and officials, including €750,000 sitting inside a suitcase in a Brussels hotel room, and €150,000 found in the apartment of an EU parliamentarian. Authorities alleged corruption involving dealings with a Persian Gulf state — which was soon ubiquitously identified as the World Cup host country. The aim was to promote political, economic, and financial EU decision-making in the country’s favor, Belgian prosecutors say.

European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili, arrested alongside a handful of others and charged with "participation in a criminal organisation, money-laundering and corruption" was subsequently fired after the EU Parliament voted to strip her titles.

The Qatari government says that it doesn’t operate that way. Corruption scandals generally involve cutouts and middlemen — or “bag men” — who are paid handsomely for the risk they take in potentially being caught with bags of cash, and to keep mouths shut about their well-protected bosses if they’re ever nabbed. Unless they’re exceptionally dumb.

If there’s anything surprising in this so-called "Qatar corruption" scandal — as though any such practices begin and end solely with Qatar — it’s that the evidence which authorities claim to have unearthed is so flagrant. It’s only in the context of comments from EU leadership that the lack of sophistication makes sense. "We have one [ethics body] with very clear rules internally at the European Commission and again, therefore I think it is time to discuss whether we could not establish this overall for all European institutions. I’m not advocating that others join the same type we have but the principles of having such an ethics body where there are very clear rules on what has to be checked, how and when, and what has to be published, how and when, would be a big step forward," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in proposing that the EU Parliament also be subjected to the same ethics rules as the bloc’s executives.

Seriously? That’s kind of like having a written rule that the managers at the local McDonald’s or Burger King aren’t allowed to dip into the till, but lacking any such rule for the rank and file employees.

The scandal shines a rare, bright spotlight in a very dark corner of lobbying practices in so-called democracies. At the time this all blew up, the European Parliament was on the verge of voting on a visa-free entry scheme for Qataris — which has now been derailed, along with all other Qatar-linked legislation. But scrutiny shouldn’t exclude friendly Western countries. The total lack of independence of the European Union’s agenda from Washington’s — and all too often to the detriment of the average European citizen — is long overdue for a much closer look. Many Europeans are wondering why they find themselves faced with the disastrous impact of suicidal policies concocted by European supranational institutions. Reason and pragmatism certainly fail to explain it, but perhaps corruption might.

This fiasco should also invite some soul-searching in Washington, where foreign money and influence has been able to pass through lobbying loopholes that include Washington’s many think-tanks which persistently hide their undisclosed biased and special interests under a veneer of intellectual respectability. The bipartisan Fighting Foreign Influence Act, currently in legislative limbo, would require think-tanks to disclose their foreign financing and prohibit former U.S. military officers, government officials, and lawmakers from lobbying on behalf of foreign governments after they leave office — a practice that’s now rampant across the Western world. The fact that former high-ranking American officials can still feasibly collect foreign cash and then make donations from their stash to candidates who support the cause of the foreign donors would certainly serve to explain why Washington lawmakers, like their European counterparts, often champion causes that are far from the priorities of the average American — if not overtly detrimental.

The EU lobbying scandal — the practices and lack of controls that it’s revealing in so-called Western democracies — should outrage every American citizen and strike fear into the heart of the swamp.