Late declarations, false observation missions, prolonged stays: anomalies in the travels of MEPs

Tags : European Parliament, corruption, Antonio Panzeri, Eva Kaili, Francesco Giorgi, Qatargate, Marocgate, Morocco,

Le Soir collected all the declarations of trips financed by a third party published on the official website of the European Parliament during the current legislature. 328 journeys could thus be analysed. And there are surprises.

MEPs sitting in the European Parliament have an obligation to declare their trips which have been financed, in whole or in part, by a third party. Since the Qatargate affair, several such trips have resurfaced; MEPs who « forgot » to declare them within the time limit. We are thinking in particular of the Belgian socialists Marc Tarabella and Marie Arena, invited for two nights by Qatar, or of the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola (two nights in Israel).

Following these late notifications, Le Soir decided to collect all the declarations published on the official site of the European Parliament, during the current legislature, by the 705 deputies who compose it. By compiling all the details that appear in these documents: destination, organization inviting, date of travel, declaration deadline, number of hotel nights offered, means of transport covered, reason for travel, etc.

It appears from this data collection that by stopping the count on January 31, 2023, 328 trips were declared (by 140 current MEPs and 15 elected officials who renounced their mandate along the way). Le Soir then carried out an unprecedented analysis which allows, among other things, to objectify the most popular destinations, the impact of Qatargate on the number of documents returned, or the differences in travel practices between political groups.

Two important things to keep in mind:

1 – MEPs who have traveled without ever declaring it escape this census (and violate the Parliament’s code of conduct). It is not possible for us to quantify this phenomenon;

2 – Official missions paid for by Parliament and personal travel paid for by the MEP himself (or by his party) do not fall within the scope of this file.

A month in Venezuela for a Spanish elected representative, 47 hotel nights offered to a Green deputy, seven days in Russia for a 72-hour event, 89 notifications published after the deadline… The monthly number of declarations has exploded over the past two months, after the Qatargate revelations. Coincidence?

ITravel advisories are pouring in on the European Parliament’s website. While between January and November 2022, there were, on average, four declarations per month, 104 notifications of this type were submitted for the months of December 2022 and January 2023 alone, according to an analysis carried out by Le Soir . It’s hard not to see a post-Qatargate effect, which erupted on December 9, especially since 66% of declarations for the last two months were returned outside the time limit, sometimes more than 1,000 days late.

As a reminder, MEPs, if they accept an invitation to take part in an event organized by third parties with all or part of the costs covered by the inviting power, must indicate this. Both to parliamentary services, via a form (which fits on an A4 sheet) and to European citizens, via an online publication. At the latest by the end of the month following their return to the country.

Le Soir has analyzed the 328 declarations published since the beginning of the European legislature. A list that is probably not exhaustive. The cases pinned below concern, in fact, the 140 current elected officials who declared, sometimes late, but declared trips nonetheless. Among the remaining 565 MEPs, who said nothing at all (i.e. more than 80% of the assembly), it is not excluded that some cheat by omission and remain, for the time being, under the radar.

In the data compiled by Le Soir , we find…

1. Frequent flyers

Most of the MEPs who declare have only one trip to their credit (they are 90 in this case). But there are some backpackers (see infographics). The prize for declared trips goes to Reinhard Bütikofer, German MP. Twenty-two trips, since the start of the legislature – concentrated in twenty-four months, the covid having imposed a pause of some 18 months. Thirteen different countries, including Australia, Russia, China, India, the United States… Journeys which may be all the more surprising as the great traveler sits with the Greens. Admittedly, the person concerned concentrates his parliamentary work on foreign issues – he chairs the Delegation for relations with China, sits in that with the United States as well as in the Foreign Affairs Committee. But we don’t talk here missions officially carried out (and financed) by the assembly. Nor travel that elected officials would pay « out of pocket » – in reality, that of Parliament, since each MEP can benefit from the reimbursement of travel expenses incurred « for purposes other than official meetings, for example to attend a conference or make a working visit », up to 4,716 euros per year.

Reinhard Bütikofer has accepted plane tickets (in business or economy, depending on the distance), and a total of 47 hotel nights offered. To take part in forums, conferences, meetings… The prize goes to this one-week trip to Australia, where he benefited from a “tailor-made program for special guests”. Asked by Le Soir about the record he holds, the deputy believes that it is “important to travel”. And if, within his political group, some have doubts about the very principle of accepting trips paid for by third parties, Reinhard Bütikofer specifies “judge on a case-by-case basis”.

2. Latecomers

In this ranking, Katarina Barley comes first. The German Socialist MP returned ten of her thirteen statements out of time. The fault, as we often hear in the bays, with rules insufficiently explained to the newcomers? The one who is both a novice and also vice-president of Parliament, recognizes the delays. “It was not clear to me whether invitations from universities, or media performances, especially on German public broadcasters, had to be declared. “Among the events declared by the elected official include talk shows, conferences, a “sports press ball”, often for only one night, most of the time in Germany… “I want to be as transparent as possible , so I decided to declare everything, ”she explains again. “Big productions, like the shows I mentioned, usually pay for travel and accommodation for their guests. It is in any case a usual procedure in Germany, and this applies to the whole set. »

No question, on the other hand, for the socialist, to invoke a “tedious” procedure which would explain the delays. The idea also made Danuta Hübner, EPP parliamentarian and president of the advisory committee on the conduct of deputies jump. “It takes a few seconds for a parliamentarian to inform his assistant who, for his part, needs five minutes to fill in the form based on the detailed information that one receives when one accepts an invitation. In theory, latecomers face penalties. But none has been pronounced since the start of the legislative, for late (or even erroneous) travel declarations. According to the count established by Le Soir, more than one declaration out of four has however been published late (27.1%) since the beginning of the legislature. Some documents are also incomplete: six MEPs for example omitted to specify that the flight which had been offered to them operated in “business” class.

3. Travelers from the strange

Travel declarations, which are succinct, by definition only offer a limited view of the content of the mission. The inviting powers are often mentioned in one line, sometimes limpid (an organization, an administration or a known company, a State, an embassy), sometimes more obscure (foundations, associations, entities summarized in a few initials). The on-site program is, most of the time, not detailed either. Not to mention, of course, the influence on legislative work…

Still, some trips can raise questions. Such as those of Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish member of the EPP. Who has traveled, since 2019, twice to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and once to the United States, for meetings of the Sir Bani Yas Forum (an event led by the Emirates). « I am a member of their distinguished advisory board, which also includes a former Prime Minister of Australia, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom… », explains the person concerned. It should be noted that, as mentioned in his declarations of financial interests, the deputy is paid by this same Forum a little more than 90,000 euros per year – nothing prohibits the « second job » for parliamentarians, provided that they declare the emoluments.

Radoslaw Sikorski further emphasizes that he attaches all programs to his « scrupulously completed » declarations, which include two literary festivals to which he was invited in Greece and the United Kingdom. In the United States, however, it will be pointed out that, according to Mr. Sikorski’s notification , the SBY Forum meeting lasted 1h30; however, the « Ministry of the United Arab Emirates » paid for the round trip flight in business and four nights in a hotel there.

And the Pole is not the only one to make the pleasure last. In 15 statements identified by Le Soir , the number of hotel nights offered by the third party exceeded the duration of the event by at least 48 hours. The most flagrant case: seven nights at the Radisson in Moscow paid for by the “Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation” for the Slovak Miroslav Radacovsky. As the conference ran from September 14 to 16, 2021.

4. Election « observers »

An express round trip, a few days to observe an election abroad and submit a report: the practice is common among MEPs. And for good reason, the observation missions are considered as a guarantee of the EU for the validity of the results, especially when the elections are organized in territories where democracy is considered to be in danger, such as in Russia or in Uzbekistan.

Encouraged by experts in the field, such as the EPDE (the European Platform for Democratic Elections), they are however closely scrutinized: « We welcome these missions provided that the elections are not illegal, as is the case referendums/elections organized in the occupied territories. And provided that the observers follow a clear methodology according to international standards, they tell us.

And this is where the shoe pinches: some missions find themselves in the crosshairs of informed observers when they are accused of legitimizing polls that are not very respectful of democracy. Since 2015, the EPDE has singled out 27 MEPs who participated in these observation missions deemed dubious. Among them, a large number of far-right MEPs belonging to the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. In 2021, 11 MEPs were singled out by Parliament for their participation in these observation missions, often all expenses paid by the hosts. Eight of them, who went to Crimea or Kazakhstan, were banned for the rest of the year from carrying out election observation missions. The other three sanctioned MEPs, all from the extreme Left (Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Manu Pineda).

According to the analysis of the Evening, the Spaniard Manu Pineda spent no less than 22 nights in Venezuelan territory, offered by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela or the National Electoral Council (three trips, between December 2020 and March 2022). “Manu has never taken part in an electoral observation mission”, assures the communication manager of Izquierda Unida – Unitas Podemos. “He participated in an electoral monitoring mission, along with hundreds of other representatives from different countries. It’s not the same thing. And Manu was not sanctioned by Parliament. Simply, he was excluded from electoral missions, until the end of 2021 because some of his statements to the press were misinterpreted, as if he were speaking on behalf of the European Parliament. As for the frequency of trips to Venezuela.

Following a trip offered by the Baku authorities, two elected officials (Engin Eroglu and Franc Bogovic) suddenly changed their discourse on Azerbaijan.

VScritical of the Baku regime, MEPs Engin Eroglu (Germany, Renew group) and Franc Bogovic (Slovenia, EPP group) have significantly softened their position after an invitation trip to this former Soviet republic in September 2022, revealed the December 7 Swedish investigative site Blankspot .

Previously, in March, the two men had passed a resolution condemning the destruction by Azerbaijan of an important Armenian heritage and deploring “a policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians encouraged by the Azerbaijani authorities”. In the same logic, Mr. Eroglu had on September 14 reproached on social networksto the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, for not having denounced Baku’s authoritarian and warlike excesses in her State of the Union speech: « During her speech, Ursula von der Leyen clearly indicated that the EU fully supports Ukraine. I’m happy about that, of course! (…) What is however interesting, for me, is what was not discussed (…) A few words critical of Azerbaijan would also have been appropriate. Ruled since 1993 by the Aliyev family, this southern Caucasian republic has a score of 9 – between Belarus and Sudan – on Freedom House , an NGO that continuously assesses access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 country. And she is in 154th position(out of 180) in the 2022 ranking of Reporters Without Borders.

Carpets and vineyards

Is it to judge for themselves the relevance of these criticisms that the two MEPs, a few days after the criticism addressed to the President of the Commission, flew to Baku? Still, responding to an invitation from the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, they landed on September 21 at Heydar Aliyev International Airport. On the program of this four-day visit, it emerges from the declaration that they deposited three months later on the offices of Parliament, official meetings, interviews with local journalists, the presentation of a « smart village » , a guided walk through the capital, a visit to the Carpet Museum and then a visit to a vineyard.

Official reason for this tour: the two MEPs are members of the RUMRA & Smart villages intergroup, which focuses on the development of rural regions. It is in this capacity that they delivered, from the Marriott hotel which accommodated them, a long interview on the state television CBC, calling for a strengthening of the links – in particular energy – between the Union and the ‘Azerbaijan. A desire for cooperation that Engin Eroglu reiterated less than two months later on his Facebook account to conclude a meeting with the Azerbaijani ambassador to Germany.

« This trip has indeed been declared, the delay is due to an administrative error », comments Mr. Bogovic. “This mission was carried out in complete transparency (…), the only goal was to visit a smart village, which was built in just nine months. Mr. Bogovic denies having suddenly, on his return from this trip, changed his opinion on Azerbaijan. “This mission was in fact completely devoid of political motivation, it was also a precondition. His travel companion did not respond to our request for clarification.

Along with India, the Jewish state is the preferred destination for European elected representatives. Three organizations primarily fund these visits, which promote Israeli interests.

Who wouldn’t dream of nights in luxury hotels, with a helicopter flight as a bonus? Several MEPs were able to live this experience during a trip paid for by pro-Israeli lobbies. Le Soir has gone through more than 300 declarations of trips by European parliamentarians, at the invitation of a third party, to understand who is inviting them. And two destinations stand out: India and Israel. These two countries each appear in 30 declarations completed by European elected representatives. This corresponds to 117 nights offered in India and 115 in the Jewish state.

Figures probably underestimated, because the accounting is based only on those who declared their trips. The corruption scandal in the European Parliament has sparked a rush for the declaration form. But it’s a safe bet that all the « omissions » have not been regularized.

Two Belgians

Among the guests in Israel, we find in particular the President of the Parliament Roberta Metsola, and two Belgian MEPs: Assita Kanko (N-VA, ECR) and Tom Vandenkendelaere (CD&V, EPP).

In November 2021, MEP N-VA, member of the Human Rights sub-committee, flew (in economy class which she paid for with her own money, only the hotel was offered) for a  » working visit” at the invitation of the European Leadership Network. “During these five days, we met a lot of people: Jews as well as Arabs, members of the Knesset or people from the army, journalists, students…”, she specified on her Twitter account. To our knowledge, the trip did not include meetings with Palestinian officials or associations active in the West Bank. « My vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on several aspects and a visit to a country is only one of these elements », reacted Assita Kanko, who underlines having asked « critical questions » during her stay.

Of the eleven elected officials participating in the same trip, only five declared it. Estonian Andrus Ansip (Renew), Sweden’s David Lega (PPE), Slovenia’s Ljudmila Novak (PPE), Bulgaria’s Elena Yoncheva (S&D) and Spaniards Juan Ignacio Zoido (PPE) and Isabel Benjumea (PPE) did not not complied with this obligation. During another visit in October and November 2022, at least four MEPs from the delegation « failed » to declare their trip, which included a visit to Efrat, an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, as well as a meeting with his mayor.

The hyperactive Tom Vandenkendelaere, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, visited Israel in early November 2022, at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). During the six-day visit, the Belgian made a short stop in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, to meet Palestinians there. In the wake of his trip, on November 13, he said in plenary session his support for the two-state solution, stinging in passing the historic enemy of Israel, Iran. Soon, he said, he will meet Palestinian officials and UNRWA, the branch of the UN dedicated to Palestinian refugees.

When they are invited to visit Israel, MEPs are mainly invited by three organisations: the European Leadership Network (Elnet), the AJC Transatlantic Institute and B’nai B’rith. These lobbies, which generally provide the flight (in economy class) and the hotel (luxury) have in common to defend the Israeli point of view within the EU.

Elnet is “dedicated to strengthening relations between Europe and Israel, based on democratic values ​​and shared strategic interests”. Founded in 2016, the European branch of this organization communicates extensively on the very regular trips offered to European officials. On their website, a video galvanizes the educational virtues of these trips. “If you manage to solve the problems in Jerusalem, you have your route to solve the problems for all of Israel,” promises one of the speakers. Belgian MEP Assita Kanko (N-VA, ECR) says in this video that she was « shocked to see how much patience people can put into hate », during a visit to Hezbollah facilities in northern Israel.

The AJC Transatlantic Institute is the Brussels branch of the hyperactive American pro-Israel lobby American Jewish Committee. In his sights: defence, NATO and the Iranian threat. But also a desire « to improve the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel, and to advance human rights and democratic values ​​in the United States, Europe and around the world », assures his website. The Transatlantic Institute « is aimed at decision-makers across the political spectrum from all relevant European institutions and services, as well as NATO and diplomatic missions to the EU, think tanks, journalists and to other civil society actors. Twenty MEPs took part in his trips.

“Support the Israeli government”

For its part, the B’nai B’rith is a historic international organization which promotes, in particular, « Jewish culture », « intercultural and interreligious dialogue » and « (combat) anti-Semitism ». Through meetings and conferences, the Europe branch “promotes” the interests of the State of Israel with European institutions. According to the organization, “for Jews around the world, the State of Israel is a special place. The welfare of the country is central to Jewish life. Like any other legitimate state, Israel has the right to defend itself against any act of aggression that threatens its citizens,” develops its website .

Are these three organizations in direct contact with the Israeli state? Neither the Israeli representation to the EU nor Elnet responded to our questions. AJC Transatlantic Institute and B’nai B’rith have indicated that they are independent. “Whether or not they are financed or organized by the Israeli state is only secondary, in my opinion,” judge Martin Konecny, director of the European Middle East Project think tank. “They have their own motivation to support the Israeli government no matter what it does. They are guided by their nationalist sentiment.

Between the need to exist on the international scene and the feeling of feeling watched, the deputies of the ID group and the conservatives of ECR ​​apply themselves to declaring all their trips.

VS’is to the right of the right that we travel… or that we declare the most. 25.4% of conservative MEPs from the ECR group (which includes, among others, the Poles from PiS and the Italians from Fratelli d’Italia) have already declared at least one trip, compared to 23.4% for far-right MEPs of the ID group (with the Vlaams Belang or the National Rally), who always meet the deadline. « These are globetrotters who need, more than the others, to restore their image internationally and to establish contacts », assures Jean-Yves Camus, connoisseur of the far right and co-founder of the Observatory. political radicalism.

Among the most active hosts with conservative and far-right MEPs, India (17 declared invitations) and two organizations in particular: the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies and the Women’s Economic and Social ThinkTank. The “Modi connection” of Brussels is taking shape. Behind these two think tanks, the shadow of a certain Madi Sharma, an Indian lobbyist based in Brussels who facilitated meetings with the Indian nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These MEPs became the first delegation of foreign dignitaries to visit Kashmir since the repeal of Article 370 (which revoked the region’s autonomy). Vlaams Belang MEP Tom Vandendriessche was there. This is his only declared trip, and the Belgians of the ID group are not on the move: his two other colleagues from Belang, Filip de Man and Gerolf Annemans (who tells us that he did not receive an invitation), n declared no trips.

“More exemplary than the most exemplary”

Another zealous host, Russia. Since the start of the mandate, ten invitations have been issued by Russia to far-right MEPs, then accepted and declared. In 2020, the elected officials attended, according to their declaration, an “election observation mission” in Crimea – now annexed – at the invitation of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation. The EPDE (the European Platform for Democratic Elections), which has extensively documented these sham observation missions organized by the Russian government, warns: « Russia’s independent experts and observers claim that this institution was created to produce “fake” observers in Russia, in an effort to silence criticism from legitimate observers. »

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, travel has obviously dried up. Let us note all the same a particularly badly named round table dating from mid-March 2021 – “Fight for peace” – which was attended by the French MEP for the National Rally Thierry Mariani, who is among the greatest travelers. Nicolas Sarkozy’s former minister spent 28 nights abroad on behalf of a third party (3 in India, 4 in Uzbekistan, 4 in Kazakhstan, 6 in Russia, 9 in Syria and 2 in Switzerland) and participated three times to these famous electoral observation missions. “He is in the crosshairs, he must declare”, judges the expert Jean-Yves Camus.

And for good reason: the MEP, sanctioned in 2021 by the European Parliament alongside four other colleagues from the RN for an observation mission in Russia, knows he is being scrutinized. His trips to Syria, where Marine Le Pen’s party has forged ties with Bashar el-Assad’s regime, have also been singled out. « In our group there have been problems in the past [Marine Le Pen and three other former National Front MEPs have allegedly misused 620,000 euros of European public money, editor’s note] », recognizes Mariani. “The legislation is very clear: we declare and it’s transparent. It keeps us out of trouble. At the start of our term of office, there was a reminder within our group. When you are observed, you must be more exemplary than the most exemplary. »


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