A global advocate of integrity checks its own

Charges of bribe-taking against members of the European Parliament trigger moral soul-searching and reform in the EU.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola chairs a Jan. 18 vote to elect a new vice-president to replace a disgraced former vice president.

For nearly a year, Europe has tried to cope with four surprise shocks. First, Russia violated a European border by invading Ukraine – only to see the continent rally against it. Then an energy shock and high inflation hit; both are now mostly under control.

The fourth shock, however, has sent Europe into deep soul-searching over its claim to be a champion and an enforcer of universal values in governance.

In December, police in Belgium began to arrest several current and former members of the European Parliament – including a vice president – on charges of corruption and other offenses related to allegations of bribery by Qatar and Morocco. Of the many institutions in the European Union, the 705-member parliament is the only one whose members are elected by the bloc’s 447 million citizens. The arrests have left a reputational taint on European democracy that leaders are quickly trying to fix before elections in 2024.

Last month, the parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, proposed 14 steps to prevent the kind of behavior alleged in the scandal, now dubbed Qatargate. The measures include tougher rules on gifts and free trips, a “cooling off” period for former members before they can become lobbyists, and an end to “friendship groups” that lawmakers have formed with non-EU countries like Qatar. The parliament will soon take up her proposals.

Meanwhile, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, says it will present a plan in March for an EU-wide ethics enforcer. The EC vice president for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, said the proposed entity would investigate and sanction officials who violate rules on conflicts of interest or fail to report assets. According to Transparency International, more than a quarter of parliamentary members have second jobs. Many fail to register gifts they have received.

Ms. Jourová admits that better rules and tough enforcement cannot replace the need for officials to have a conscience. “We should all have some moral compass,” she told parliament members this week in Strasbourg, France.

Europe’s soul-searching over the integrity it seeks and espouses has begun. Or as Jessika Roswall, EU affairs minister for Sweden, told Politico, “We all need to live up to the high expectations and standards when it comes to ethics and transparency.”

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