Unethical but legal: All the things MEPs can get away with

What is legal is not always ethical.

By Muiris O'Cearbhaill

SEVERAL DOZEN MEPs have engaged in unethical behaviour in the past, benefiting from a lack of clear rules in the institutions and their home countries, a pan-European investigation has found.

The Journal, Noteworthy and its international partners found these MEPs engaged in technically legal, but unethical, behaviour.

The data collected by the team also reflects that while the European Parliament has an abundance of rules that should prevent its members from misbehaving, lengths have been taken to work around these rules.

In the wake of the Qatargate corruption scandal and with EU elections coming up, the issue of voter trust is more relevant than ever and some gaps in behavioural guidelines were also highlighted during the investigation.

Since September, 37 journalists from 22 EU member states investigated how many MEPs had some kind of blemish to their name and what types of scandals they were  involved in – digging up more than 250 cases of misbehaviour.

While discovering hundreds of cases, the investigation also brought to light affairs in which an EU lawmaker had not directly breached any rules, but that would still likely raise eyebrows with voters.

There were incidents of MEPs who spread misinformation, benefitted from a lack of rules around free speech, those who did not act on signals of harassment, and potential conflicts of interest.

Misrepresentation and lapses in transparency

Multiple MEPs have previously been caught not telling the whole truth, in turn spreading misinformation or conspiracy theories.

One, Czech MEP Ivan David, is the chairman of the board of a website that was identified as a platform that spreads conspiracy theories.

Fellow-Czech MEP Hynek Blaško spread misinformation about the downing of civilian plane MH17 in Ukraine and the botched assassination attempt of former Russian military officer and double agent Sergei Skripal.

In Ireland, The Journal‘s FactCheck unit found that Independent MEP Clare Daly had “mistakenly” cited the wrong fatality figures for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

irish-independents-4-change-candidate-clare-daly-at-the-count-centre-in-the-rds-dublin-as-counting-of-votes-continues-in-the-european-elections Independent MEP Clare Daly who last year stated the wrong fatality Ukrainian figures in the European Parliament, pictured in Dublin in 2019.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

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

Dr Andreea Năstase, a European policy academic from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, recently wrote that unethical behaviour can impact how voters view the EU.

She said: “Unethical or ethically questionable behaviour need not necessarily constitute ‘serious misconduct’, or indeed even be illegal, for it to lead to public scandals and to damage citizens’ trust in EU institutions.”

A lapse in transparency can also disrupt public confidence in political structures and politicians themselves.

In 2021, Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe apologised after it was found he used the name of a fake polling company and mock ballot papers when canvassing before the 2002 general election.

The issue was that the volunteers had not disclosed to the constituents that the polling company was fake and that they were instead working with a political party. Other political parties were found to have done the same in the run-up to a number of other elections. 

green-party-equality-spokesman-ciaran-cuffe-at-the-launch-of-the-partys-childcare-strategy-in-dublin-wednesday-november-16-2005-see-pa-story-politics-childcare-press-association-photo-photo-cred Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe as his party's equality spokesperson when he was a TD in 2005.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The data was used by the parties to locate potential strongholds and weak points in their constituencies. Cuffe was elected as a TD in Dún Laoghaire on the 11th count in 2002. He apologised for the stunt and said that it probably is viewed differently “in a world of GDPR and greater concerns about transparency”.

This type of behaviour, while not viewed as sinister, can have deep impacts to how the general public view topical issues, such as the invasion of Ukraine or their potential voting patterns.

According to the rules, MEPs “shall not harm [the European Parliament’s] reputation”. But simultaneously, those rules may not “undermine Members’ freedom of speech”. So how is this balanced?

“In our societies, we still have a tendency towards protecting freedom of expression rather than punishing the spread of misinformation and fake news,” policy expert Năstase said.

Allowances of free speech

Another tricky, but related, topic is freedom of speech. For elected representatives, this is considered an important element of democracy, only limited by expressions forbidden by the law.

Slovak MEP Miroslav Radačovský, for example, had previously been a judge but jump-started a move to politics with a scathing attack to then-President of Slovakia Andrej Kiska.

In 2018, Radačovský ruled that Kiska had no right to land that he had purchased. In the ruling, he told Kiska that if he were the president and lost the same case he would “give up the position” and run away to Israel or the United States.

The next year, Radačovský was elected into the European Parliament.

In Ireland in 2020, Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher apologised to RTÉ journalist Tony Connelly after his criticism of the organisation’s coverage of European affairs was viewed as a direct insult to the reporter.

christine-lagarde-president-of-the-european-central-bank-at-the-european-parliament-for-the-presentation-of-the-annual-report-brussels-08022021 Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher, who in 2020 called for public funding to RTÉ to be cut for what he labelled pitiful EU coverage, speaking in Brussels the following year.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The parliament’s ‘appropriate behaviour rules‘ outline that MEPs are expected to behave “in a professional manner and refrain, in their relations with staff, from degrading, insulting, offensive or discriminatory language or any other unethical, demeaning or unlawful actions”.

All of these guidelines and codes of behaviour only apply to MEPs in their working life (while in the parliament).

While it would be best practice to act in a professional manner at all times, there is no such reprimand they can receive for misbehaviour in their private like – unlike while within the parliament.

MEPs getting around nepotism rules

Nepotism is another example of a type of action that does not break any law. Policy expert Năstase told our investigative team that while this behaviour is not illegal, it can be viewed as “unethical”.

Nepotism can be prominent among lawmakers and there were numerous examples discovered by this investigation where MEPs got their family members certain benefits due to their political position.

Since 2009, however, MEPs are not allowed to hire “close relatives” as their assistants, to prevent nepotism. But those rules only apply to the politician’s own relatives.

So when an Austrian MEP from the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) hired a close relative of another party member, it was not in breach of the rules.

A similar case is that of two Greek MEPs, formerly of the extreme right Golden Dawn party, who hired the wives of other politicians from the same party. One of them, controversial politician Ioannis Lagos, also hired his girlfriend – but whether that counts as a close relative is unclear.

Maastricht University’s Năstase said such cases are nevertheless clearly are a conscious, unethical step to avoid the rules.

european-parliament-member-ioannis-lagos-who-had-been-found-guilty-along-with-others-of-leading-a-criminal-organization-and-face-five-to-15-years-in-prison-walks-during-a-break-of-a-court-session-on Greek MEP Ioannis Lagos after being found guilty of leading a criminal organisation in 2020.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Relaxed rules around conflicts of interest

The implementation of the parliament’s conduct rules largely comes down to individual self-assessments by the parliamentarian. That especially applies to potential conflicts of interest.

This adds to the uncertainty of whether or not rules have been breached.

A handful of cases were discovered by our team, where MEPs were alleged of having a conflict of interest which they denied.

Centre-right Bulgarian MEP Emil Radev, for example, had offered his mediation services to a Libyan state-owned company to help secure the release of a hijacker tanker, according to investigative platform Bivol.

The MEP’s law office offered a €4.5 million contract for its services. But the MEP denied there was a conflict of interest.

Or the Danish MEP Karen Melchior and Czech MEP Marcel Kolaja, who drafted legislation that would apply to big technology companies, while simultaneously holding shares of Apple and IBM respectively.

prague-czech-republic-12th-oct-2023-pirates-comment-on-legislation-that-would-significantly-violate-privacy-of-citizens-on-internet-ec-proposal-that-aims-to-suppress-the-sexual-abuse-of-children Czech MEP Marcel Kolaja (centre), from the 'Pirate Party', commenting to the media on proposed legislation in 2023.
Source: Alamy Stock Photo

In December 2023, Melchior shared a post on LinkedIn which contained a video promo and commented: “Sweet ad from Apple.”

Both denied they were in a conflict of interest.

One problem is the body that people would expect to have oversight has limited powers.

If MEPs are uncertain whether they have a conflict of interest, they can request guidance from the ‘Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members’ – made up of a group of MEPs.

After Dutch outlet Follow the Money wrote about Melchior and Kolaja holding tech shares, both MEP asked for such guidance. But neither found the advice useful.

“Regarding the holding of shares, the Advisory Committee has not been able to ascertain a conflict of interest, nor the absence of one,” Melchior said. Kolaja, meanwhile, called the advice “extremely vague”.

“Conflict of interest is not a permanent situation,” academic Năstase explained.

“It’s something that can be activated in certain circumstances. Because it’s not a permanent situation, like a permanent incompatibility, the codes rely on MEPs themselves to declare their conflicts of interest.”

Until recently, being transparent was all that was required: having declared a certain financial interest did not prevent MEPs from participating in legislative activities that might clash with the interests.

The system is far from perfect. The European Court of Auditors in 2019 identified it as a “weakness” in the scrutiny of the MEPs’ declarations and that its main safeguard was attention it received from stakeholders, the media and the public.

That all changed after the parliament’s Vice President Eva Kaili and four others were arrested in December 2022, suspected of receiving bribes from Qatar and Morocco.

In what became known as ‘Qatargate‘, police found €900,000 in cash in more than a dozen searches – €720,000 of it 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.

The parliament changed its rules on conflicts of interests that made it a requirement for MEPs to declare whether they have one or more interests (another job, holding in a company, connections to other political leaders, etc.).

Under the new rules, however, side jobs which earn an MEP less than €5,000 a year no longer have to be declared.

Nick Aiossa, director of Transparency International EU, said the new €5,000 threshold means more MEPs would be able to get away with conflicts of interests. He now expects all MEPs to simply announce not having a conflict of interest.

I’d offer a reward for the first MEP who actually declares to have a conflict and files it with the EP. It’s box-ticking paperwork.

When asked about specific potential conflicts of interest, a European Parliament spokesperson insisted they cannot comment on individual cases.

But the parliament declined to say, either in specific cases or in general, whether it is acceptable for MEPs to promote commercial companies – let alone if it is for a company they hold shares in.

Collective misbehaviour

Finally, there were a series of controversies that were left out of the investigation’s database because they are so widespread that they can be seen as collective misbehaviour.

MEPs are required to report any gifts they receive. But in 2016, 2018 and 2021, only a single MEP registered a gift in the entire year. That this probably meant that MEPs were not reporting gifts – instead of the other explanation: not receiving any gifts – became clear in the aftermath of Qatargate.

In the months after the first allegations of corruption and bribery, several MEPs started reporting gifts for the first time, including gifts they had received many months before.

This included the current parliament president Roberta Metsola. More than one hundred gifts she accepted on behalf of the parliament were not made public until after Qatargate, far beyond the deadline.

These MEPs were in violation of the rule that states a gift should be registered by the last day of the next month in which it was received. 

A spokesperson for Metsola said that the only requirement is that the gifts are “notified to the president” – meaning no deadline was missed because “the act of the president receiving a gift is an immediate notification in itself”.

MEPs are also required to report when they go to events where their travel or accommodation costs are paid by a third party.

Aoissa’s Transparency International (TI) discovered that as with gifts, there was a similar lax attitude towards declaring paid travel. “We found huge amounts of MEP’s in violation of the declaration rules and no consequences.”

Elections coming up

Since Qatargate, the European Parliament has expressed its outrage at the corruption allegations, and also changed a number of ethics rules. But transparency campaigner Aiossa points to a discrepancy between the parliament’s words and its actions.

They passed “quite gloriously worded texts that called for some real reforms”, but these texts were non-binding resolutions, instead of the actual rules themselves, Aoissa said.

He added that the reform failed to deliver “the kind of fundamental, structural changes that would prevent a scandal like Qatargate from happening again”.

After more than an hour of speeches at the last plenary week of 2023 – in which many MEPs expressed their “shock” and support for “strong ethical behaviour” – the EU’s Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová concluded the debate by calling Qatargate “a reputational blow not only to this House, but to the EU as such”.

She said: “We have to be careful because we are six months ahead of the elections, and we should accelerate all our actions to convince the people that we are trustworthy and that there should be a vote cast in the European elections.”

However, as reported by The Journal last week, the main pillars of the EU are at risk of being left behind by the next parliament – as data shows there could be an influx of Eurosceptic, right-leaning candidates being made MEPs.

If such important policy pillars, such as the EU Green Deal and further enlargement, are expected to be dropped by future members, it’s difficult to tell if these transparency measures will too be upheld.


PART 1 – Investigation: 25% of Europe’s MEPs were involved in a scandal >>



In the first article of this investigative series, journalists from across Europe collected media clippings from all 27 EU countries in which any of the current 704 MEPs (as of 18 January 2024) were mentioned in relation to a scandal, counting them according to varying degrees of severity.

The cases included scandals that have either had consequences for the lawmaker, like a sanction, investigation or reprimand. They included, for example, to corruption, fraud and abuse of power. Read our findings in our first article, published earlier today.

But aside from cases that clearly breached institutional rules or the law, we also found several dozen cases that weren’t as clear-cut which are explored above.


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

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