Integrity investigation finds 25% of Europe’s MEPs were involved in a scandal

In December 2022, police found €900,000 in alleged bribe cash stuffed in bags at the EU Parliament’s Vice President Eva Kaili’s home. How could corruption of such scale happen at the heart of the EU? Was this just one isolated incident or the tip of the iceberg?

By Muiris O'Cearbhaill

HUNDREDS OF EUROPEAN lawmakers currently sitting in the European Parliament have been involved in public controversy or have outright broken the law in their lifetimes.

Data collected by The Journal, Noteworthy and other European media partners reveals that 25% of sitting MEPs have been involved in some type of misbehaviour or public outrage on a national or international level.

The analysis also reveals that 23 of them, or 3%, have been convicted by a court with outcomes ranging from convictions and fines to jail time.

In December 2022, the EU was exposed to the worst corruption case the institutions had ever come across after the parliament’s vice president, Greek MEP, Eva Kaili and four others were arrested after they were suspected of receiving bribes from Qatar and Morocco.

In what became known as ‘Qatargate‘, the scandal left Europe astonished by the level of corruption being exposed. In more than a dozen searches, police found €900,000 in cash.

Around €720,000 was found in a suitcase stuffed with €50 notes along with bottles and nappies for Kaili’s 21-month old daughter. Over a year later, the formal police investigation remains ongoing.

greek-parliament-member-eva-kaili-listens-to-exiled-belarusian-opposition-leader-sviatlana-tsikhanouskaya-delivering-her-speech-at-the-european-parliament-wednesday-sept-13-2023-in-strasbourg-eas Greek MEP Eva Kaili in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France in September 2023, while under investigation.
Source: Alamy

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Although all defendants and foreign countries allegedly involved deny any wrongdoing, the scandal has all the hallmarks of brazen corruption: handing over cash to politicians to buy their influence.

This raised some painful questions. How could corruption of such scale happen at the heart of the EU? Was this just one isolated, albeit very serious, incident or was this the tip of the iceberg?

In a cross-border analysis initiated by Dutch investigative platform Follow the Money, journalists from The Journal, Noteworthy and over 20 other European outlets (representing a total of 22 member states) dug up as many skeletons-in-closets as possible to determine the level of integrity of the outgoing European Parliament. 

A total of 253 blemishes – which previously hit headlines across the member states – were unearthed, entered into an extensive database and sorted into types of misbehaviour.

We scrutinised previous scandals and misbehaviour from 704 MEPs, ranging from before they first entered the political sphere to as recent as this month.

A range of findings

The cases, as all the affairs do, vary in their seriousness.

Take, for instance, the relatively minor case of the Estonian MEP Jaak Madison, who was fined €100 for selling a smartphone found while working on a ferry almost a decade ago, instead of reporting it to the company.

Meanwhile in Ireland, minor cases include Independent MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly being reprimanded by the parliament after they refused to show a Covid-19 vaccination pass when entering the building in Brussels in 2021.

But there are also a handful of politicians with a serious criminal record such as Lara Comi, an MEP for Forza Italia who was convicted and sentenced to jail for four years and two months in October for pocketing €500,000 of public money. She appealed the verdict and is still in office as a parliamentarian.

There are also several MEPs belonging to the far-right extremist Greek Golden Dawn party under investigation after the party was labelled a criminal organisation by an Athens court in 2020.

One of the party leaders, MEP Ioannis Lagos, was convicted of running a criminal organisation in 2021 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Lagos is still an active EU lawmaker from his prison cell in Greece, dialling in virtually to participate in parliament.

EP1 Ioannis Lagos, who is still a sitting MEP, being led away by police in Greece in 2021 after receiving a nearly 14-year sentence.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

In Ireland, court sanctions involved protest movements and contempt. As a TD, Mick Wallace was imprisoned for a number of hours after he refused to pay a €2,000 fine that was imposed on him for entering a US airfield at Shannon Airport in Co Clare in 2014.

Separately, as a Socialist Party councillor for Fingal, Clare Daly was sentenced to a month in jail under the same charges, this time relating to her part in an anti-bin charges protest in Dublin in 2003.

Former TD Joe Higgins also spent time in prison during the protest movement against bin taxes. The campaign was supported by a number of community and political groupings at the time, with some gaining electoral success in the aftermath as a result.  

Daly and Wallace were almost exceptional as MEPs jailed for protesting something in the name of their political beliefs.

Other parliamentarians who received prison time were sentenced over criminal behaviour, tax evasion, or as above, being a member of a criminal organisation. Some other MEPs have previously lost civil trials.

In general, the tenor of the Irish ‘infractions’ on the database are minor.

That being said, relatively small infractions by the Irish MEPs, and many others, could be harmful to the public’s trust in individuals who take public office.

BK Tweet (1) Kelleher tweeted from the Convention Centre in Dublin in 2020, when he was supposed to be at home.
Source: Billy Kelleher/Twitter

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher received much public backlash when he revealed to the country that he had traveled to Dublin – despite Covid restrictions – so he could vote for Micheál Martin as Taoiseach in 2020.

Indecent behaviour

Separately, bullying and sexual harassment is a notorious problem in Brussels. The investigative team found 46 cases relating to 37 lawmakers that made the headlines for alleged indecent behaviour.

Notably, the team found 45 corruption cases and 44 events relating to fraud and theft. How could it be that these figures are so significant, and who are the biggest offenders?

Corruption: favouritism and bribery

Of the 45 corruption cases collected in the database, there are two kinds to distinguish: favouritism (such as nepotism, cronyism and patronage) with 29 alleged incidents, and outright bribery with 16 potential examples.

The most prominent case, of course, is the aforementioned Qatargate – but that’s by far not the only scandal where EU lawmakers embezzled large sums of money.

Hungarian MEP Tamás Deutsch has been accused of displaying examples of favouritism after he came to be the leader of the European parliamentary delegation of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Órban’s party Fidesz.

Nearly 10 years ago, he and his brother took over MTK football club, which suddenly started receiving millions of euro in state funds.

EP3 Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) of Hungary delivers a speech next to Tamás Deutsch (L) of the opening match at MTK's brand new stadium in 2016.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Bulgarian MEP Sergei Stanishev was accused of corruption after his wife’s PR firm won a €60,000 contract from the Parliament for a project to promote the EU elections.

The couple and the Parliament rejected the allegations, but Sanishev’s wife withdrew from the project and returned the downpayment of almost €30,000.

The theme of corruption, and submission to foreign influence, is gaining ground in a multipolar Europe and a conflict-ridden world in the throes of geopolitical reshaping.

The problem is so prevalent, the European Parliament has taken measures to “blacklist” some MEPs from taking part in election observation trips. Ireland’s Wallace and Daly again make an appearance in this matter.

In June 2021, it was reported that the two were blacklisted after they allegedly went on a fake observation trip posing as election officials from the European Parliament.

Wallace and Daly said the blacklisting was a “political stunt” and clarified that they had attended the countries, Ecuador or Venezuela, “on our own initiative” and not in an observation capacity.

There has also been ongoing reporting, dating back to 2022, that linked them to states such as Russia and Iran, something the pair deny vehemently.

cd iraq A screengrab of Clare Daly appearing in a video that was used to promote an Iraqi militia.
Source: The Journal Fact Check

After appearing on Iranian state television in March 2021, the clip was later used in a video to promote an Iraqi militia group. The pair were labelled as an “embarrassment to Ireland” by Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne.

Behaviour linked to more domestic issues was revealed in the Dáil during the 2013 Penalty Points Scandal – where gardaí were accused of excusing a number of high-profile individuals from receiving citations for road traffic offences.

Then-TD and current Independent MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan admitted to the Dáil that he was caught using his phone while driving by a member of An Garda Síochána twice.

In one of those cases, Flanagan said he did not receive any penalty points on his licence after he wrote to a Garda sergeant, who told him to do so, to resolve the issue. He eventually asked for the points to be reinstated.

Fraud and theft of resources

Considering the high wages and additional allowances of the MEPs – the cohort earn some €8,000 per month, post-tax, and can claim almost €5,000 in general expenditures – any money affairs will rock people’s trust in their representatives.

A total of 44 fraud and/or theft incidents were found by the team.

Nick Aiossa, director of Transparency International EU, said the MEP allowances’ scheme for general expenditures – amounting to more than €40 million total per month for the more than 700 MEPs – could easily trigger abuse.

He added that there is hardly any oversight or management on the funding.

“Unfortunately just fiddling allowances and expenses is a favourite pastime of many MEPs from many parties,” he said.

In a significant example, the right-wing Rassemblement National party in France allegedly made false employment records for non-existent parliamentary assistants with €6.8 million of public funds reportedly misused.

nanterre-france-27th-june-2021-far-right-party-rassemblement-national-rn-vice-president-mep-and-candidate-for-the-regional-election-in-ile-de-france-jordan-bardella-speaks-to-the-press-at-the-p Leader of French right-wing party Rassemblement National and MEP Jordan Bardella.
Source: Alamy

The case is expected to be tried before the French Criminal Court in November 2024. The parliament was able to recover only part of that sum, outside of legal proceedings.

In response, Rassemblement National said that they “formally contest the accusations” and that the trial will “finally” give it an opportunity to defend itself.

Aiossa said the parliament is negligent in tackling the abuse of allowances.

“I think there are more cases,” he said, when reviewing the findings of this investigation.

He added: “If you violate the rules, you will not be penalised. There is an unhealthy propensity of only looking at these cases as solely a financial administrative irregularity.

When MEPs misspend money, the parliament issues a recovery notice and asks for the money back. They don’t take that second step: was it intentionally fraudulent?”

Recent findings by Follow the Money show between 2019 and 2022, a total of 108 MEPs had to pay back more than €2 million in total – which they were found to have misspent on their assistants.

Who these MEPs are, and which cases actually contained criminal intent, remains mostly hidden as the Parliament doesn’t comment on those matters.

Meanwhile, tampering with allowances is not the only way that MEPs have attempted to gain more wealth. Three current Spanish MEPs have lost court cases when they contested sanctions from the Spanish Treasury for attempting to evade domestic taxes by submitting their tax form in Belgium, where the tax rate is lower.

In 2021, Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki was asked by the parliament to pay back around €100,000 worth of travel money, after it was discovered that he added an extra 340km on paper each time he drove from Brussels to Poland.

He also claimed to use cars which weren’t his, one of which – as alleged by anti-fraud agency OLAF – was said to have been scrapped 11 years earlier. The criminal case against Czarnecki has been ongoing for over four years.

EP6 Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels in May 2023.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Property and Ireland

A number of Irish MEPs have had public controversies as a result of their property portfolios.

In 2022, it was revealed Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher didn’t register a rental property, belonging to him, with the Rental Tenancies Board (RTB) for more than two years.

The failure to do so, not only strips some tenants of their rights, but carries fines of up to €4,000 or six months imprisonment. Kelleher said his wife had paid the RTB fees once he was alerted to the incident.

Kelleher, however, did declare the income from the property to the Revenue Commission and to the Standards In Public Office Commission (Sipo).

In February 2023, Mick Wallace claimed in a social media post that he had “three wine bars in Dublin”.

This aroused suspicion from his parliamentary group, as no such assets were listed on Wallace’s mandatory declaration of financial interests.

After the chair of his parliamentary group called the failure to list the asset as “unacceptable”, Wallace amended his declaration to state that he is an “advisor” to the three wine bars and receives up to €500 a month in income for this role.

Wallace Map Bar One of the three wine bars operated by Wallace Calcio, to whom MEP Mick Wallace is an advisor of, located near Jones' Rd in Dublin.
Source: Google Earth

Even when a case does ultimately get investigated by the European fraud watchdog OLAF, its recommendations do not often lead to prosecutors being able to get the suspects convicted.

This might also help explain why, compared to the total number of corruption and fraud or theft scandals compiled, the number of criminal convictions seems to be on the low side.

Aiossa of Transparency International EU, said: “The average indictment rate under OLAF recommendations for prosecutors in 27 member states hovers around 33% per year.

“This is tragically low, given that these cases were based on months or years of investigation. So often, it can also say something about a member state judicial system.”

Transparency and better choices

According to Aiossa, it’s hard to state if the political orientation of a party has a significant impact on the number of scandals their politicians can get away with.

One in five cases in our investigation database are related to MEPs who don’t belong to any political group. These politicians include those who have been previously ousted for historic misbehaviour, according to Aiossa, or are on the fringe wings of the political spectrum.

The data also suggests that right wing and conservative MEPs are relatively more likely to be involved in serious misbehaviour when compared to other, opposing politicians.

It seems that some voters don’t mind this behaviour either, as far-right, eurosceptic parties are anticipated to top polls in at least nine European member states ahead of the next election in June.

The purpose of compiling the data was summed up by Dr Katjana Gattermann, a political communications professor at the University of Amsterdam, who said: “Ideally, it helps voters make informed choices in elections.”

In an interview with the group, she said there is little academic evidence to suggest that individual scandals can have a long-lasting effect on citizens’ trust in the European Parliament.

But she stressed that such events with MEPs reaffirms the belief of citizens who were already sceptical about the EU.

Gattermann said: “In national politics, when you have a scandal you may get a dip in public opinion, but then things go back to normal. I don’t think Qatargate will have long-lasting effects in that sense.”

She highlighted that the MEPs who receive the media attention were often involved in scandals.

“This makes it hard for MEPs, most of whom are hard-working, to actually get noticed for their work. They are not so visible compared to national politicians, making it difficult for voters to know what their MEPs are actually doing.”

She continues: “Europe is far away, and for voters it is very difficult to follow on a daily basis. Voters have less information on European affairs compared to national affairs. Investigative journalism in EU politics is very important.”


PART 2 – Unethical but legal: All the things MEPs can get away  >> 



To ensure MEPs were treated equally, our team adapted a method developed in the Netherlands by two social scientists and an investigative journalist. Only scandals that were clearly established through media coverage and/or had certain consequences – like sanctions investigations or reprimands – were included.

This investigation focused on instances when the integrity of a politician is at take and called into question. These ‘integrity scandals’ concern violations or perceived violations of prevailing moral values, norms, and rules. Other political failures and scandals, such as budget overruns or broken election promises, were not included.

The types of misbehaviour we collected were: corruption (through bribery and favoritism); fraud and theft of resources; conflict of (private and public) interests through ‘gifts’ and through side-line activities; improper use of authority; misuse and manipulation of information; waste and abuse or organisational resources; inappropriate behaviour or indecent treatment (work-related); and misconduct in the private sphere.

Misbehaviour instances were collected up to 18 January 2024. If a politician denied all accusations, this was still included in the database when serious questions were raised by credible sources about the politician’s integrity.

Reporter: Muiris O’Cearbhaill, The Journal • Editor: Maria Delaney, Noteworthy

This is part of the MEP Misconduct Investigation, an initiative of Follow the Money. The Journal and Noteworthy are the project’s Irish partners, with journalists from media outlets across Europe contributing research and input.


This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

   Search for Proposals