Living in a democracy...
“Living in a democracy, one cannot only base guilt on media evidence” MEP Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg (S&D) writes in her NewEurope blogpost 'One year after the scandal'. With this she makes a case in favour of MEP Adrian Severin (ex-S&D), who remains in Parliament even though in March 2011 he was exposed by Sunday Times journalists in the 'cash-for-amendments' scandal.
She says he is innocent until proven guilty, but she also puts up a defence of his actions. At the same time Ms Geringer discredits the journalists who uncovered the scandal. In so doing she not only does a disservice to the European Parliament, but also to citizens across Europe who expect their elected representatives to act entirely in the public interest.
Mr Severin was caught on camera charging €12 000 for “two to three days' work” which apparently included convincing his fellow MEP Sebastian Bodu (Romania, EPP) to table an amendment. In fact, Mr Severin was promoting this amendment on behalf of a corporate client who expected to pay him (a fact which was concealed from Mr Bodu at the time). What Mr Severin did not realise was that the corporate client was in fact false and that this was a sting operation by journalists. You can watch the video here: http://www.alter-eu.org/videos/2011/03/20/cash-for-laws-video-mep-severin.
In an attempt to warn us of the perils of unaccountable media power, Ms Geringer claims that since the scandal broke more than a year ago, the Romanian public prosecutor has yet to reach a conclusion in the case. Yet she fails to point out that in an investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) it recommended that the Romanian authorities prosecute Mr Severin and also that the EP should consider sanctioning him under its own rules of procedure. In fact OLAF concludes that Mr Severin “did not act independently when [he] supported an amendment to European legislation […] in the expectation to receive payment”. Criminal prosecution remains a member state competence, so the ball is squarely in Romania's court to take this case further.
Ms Geringer is a senior member of the European Parliament and a member of the Quaestors. As such, she is also an observer at the Bureau, the European Parliament's internal leadership. Her priority should be to ensure that the risk of conflicts of interest are minimised in the Parliament. Yet, her article is further evidence that this is a worrying time for European parliamentary ethics. The much-trumpeted Code of Conduct for MEPs (introduced to try to prevent future cash-for-amendments' scandals) has just been weakened by the Bureau, only a few months after coming into force.
Ms Geringer heavily criticises the Sunday Times journalists for using false identities and a fake company and discredits them further by linking their newspaper to its mother company NewsCorp. No doubt one could criticise NewsCorp for a whole lot, as the current Leveson Inquiry in the UK reveals, but the 'sting operation' in question was an example of fine investigative journalism. It is in line with journalist ethics codes that endorse such methods if carried out in the public interest and with an aim to uncover evidence that cannot be obtained otherwise. Both conditions were clearly met in this case.
In fact the scandal usefully exposed the problem of some MEPs being far too close to industry, relationships that can lead to undue influence. Some MEPs continue to defend their 'right' to hold second, third, fourth jobs at the same time as being an MEP. Prior to the scandal, Mr Severin himself had numerous extra jobs including serving as a paid member of the international advisory boards of UniCredit International, Chayton Duna Capital Property Fund and Finite Assets. How can one expect an elected representative to act for the greater good when he in fact has so many personal, financial interests?
Living in a democracy, one expects elected representatives to work in the public interest, not for their personal gain. The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) – a network of 200+ civil society groups and labour unions – is of the opinion that democracy is not so much going awry because of the role of popular media, but mainly because of the emergence of a political reality within the EU institutions where professional lobbyists play a far greater role than they do in any of the EU member states. It is not the 'mediacracy' sketched out by Ms Geringer, but the 'lobbycracy' portrayed by the Sunday Times, which we should be wary of.