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Political groups spar over EU Parliament chief Metsola’s Qatargate transparency reforms

Former members of the European Parliament will be banned from lobbying in Brussels and Strasbourg for six months after leaving office, under plans endorsed by political leaders at a closed-door meeting Wednesday night.

Roberta Metsola, the center-right Maltese Parliament chief, floated an initial 14-point list of reforms to beef up transparency and integrity rules, and futureproof the institution against any repeat of the Qatargate scandal, in which current and former MEPs have been charged with taking bribes from Qatar and Morocco.  

Other reforms include an amnesty for MEPs to file late declarations of gifts and paid-for trips, an entry log for the Parliament, and widening the scope of MEPs and assistants who must declare meetings with lobbyists.

According to an EU official, there were only minor tweaks and changes to wording from the document seen by POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook earlier Wednesday. That document included several changes from Metsola’s original proposals, chief among them a stronger commitment to beef up protections for whistleblowers and a shortening of the so-called cooling-off period that bans former MEPs from immediate lobbying work, downgrading it from a possible 24 months to just six after leaving office.

“Work on these reforms will start immediately in order to ensure entry into force as soon as possible,” the Parliament said in a press release.

“We want to move forward so it’s now time to implement them,” Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European People’s Party, told POLITICO after the meeting, saying there’d been a “general green light” for the package. Four Parliament officials who were in the room confirmed that an informal agreement had been reached.

There was no formal vote at the meeting, but even though no political faction is threatening to block the process, the Greens, Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and Left groups want more.

“They want to paper over the cracks and not put in place having a vice president in charge of corruption, obligations to do with the transparency register and declaring assets at the start and end of the mandate of MEPs,” Left co-chair Manon Aubry told POLITICO.

Aubry said that next week in Strasbourg she will push for a further debate and a Parliament text on the importance of sticking to the far-reaching Qatargate resolution approved by a majority of MEPs in December, in the immediate aftermath of the scandal erupting.

That resolution called for a dedicated committee to be established to investigate the corruption allegations. The latest Metsola plan suggests instead repurposing a pre-existing special committee on foreign interference, with Parliament officials arguing this will save time and deliver recommendations sooner on deeper reforms.

Aubry pointed a finger at her fellow French politician, Renew Europe group leader Stéphane Séjourné, whom she accused of failing to back the December vote.

A Renew spokesperson said: “She is trying to find any possible way to say we disagree. This is not true. Whether she likes it or not, we agree with her on substance and sided with Greens and Left on a more comprehensive approach.”

Metsola’s team says the reforms are intended as “first steps” that can quickly provide a political answer to the corruption scandal and be implemented in a matter of months.

According to a text from an S&D official, Socialist group President Iratxe García told the room: “The measures proposed by Metsola are a starting point, but not enough. Whistleblowers’ protection is too vague, the six-month cooling off period for former MEPs is too short (we suggest 24 months) and there are other weak points.”

“There was an agreement to continue the discussion,” the same S&D official said.

NGO bust-up

The left and right also traded blows over the role of NGOs in light of the Qatargate scandal, which has thrown light onto the operations of two human rights NGOs, Fight Impunity — run by former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who is currently detained and has made a deal with prosecutors to reveal all — and No Peace Without Justice, which was a major recipient of EU funding and was led by Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, who was freed last Friday.

The EPP has been pushing for tighter scrutiny of NGOs but civil society groups, particularly those that work on human rights such as Human Rights Watch, fear this is part of a broader attempt to instrumentalize the scandal in order to discredit their work.

Aubry accused the EPP of refusing to look at institutional failings and instead “casting scorn on all NGOs in order not to talk about the rest of the heart of the matter.”

The Metsola plan outlines rules that would bar Parliament staffers and MEP assistants from holding senior positions at NGOs funded by non-EU governments. The EPP wants to take this further and called successfully for a debate on the role of NGOs involved in the scandal to be put on the agenda for Strasbourg next week.

EPP leader Weber said: “The Socialists rejected this and that was for me an open question: Why should we not discuss it?” The Socialist official in turn rejected this version of events, saying the group simply didn’t want to focus the debate entirely on NGOs.

Asked if the EPP has recently started to more aggressively attack the Socialists over the Qatargate scandal, which so far centers only on S&D lawmakers, Weber replied: “We don’t go on the attack; I want to clarify things.”

The fight spilled out from the closed-door meeting on the sixth floor of the Paul Henri Spaak building onto social media on Wednesday evening, with the S&D accusing the EPP of not telling the truth about the push for an NGO debate.