Press play to listen to this article
Voiced by artificial intelligence.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared 142 gifts she received on a public register for MEPs, in a move that laid bare the limited transparency rules at the EU institution.
Metsola, a Maltese MEP from the center-right European People’s Party group, entered the gifts she received in an official public record that lawmakers rarely update. In doing so last week, however, she missed the deadline for MEPs to declare their gifts in relation to 125 of the items on her list.
Metsola’s team argued her declarations broke with years of secrecy by former presidents of the Parliament, none of whom ever went as far as publicly revealing the hundreds of gifts showered on them by foreign dignitaries. Her spokesperson said the deadline for MEPs did not apply to Metsola by “custom” because she’s the president of the Parliament as well as an MEP, though her team could not point to this exemption being set out officially anywhere in writing.
“This shows the system is broken,” said Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU and a former MEP. “You can’t operate an ethics system on the basis of unwritten rules. It’s good that she’s now done this, but there’s no prize for sticking to the rules.”
The emergence of Metsola’s gifts comes at a highly sensitive time for the EU Parliament. The institution is battling to re-establish its credibility amid a police investigation into allegations that senior Brussels figures were involved in corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization.
“When a president receives a gift, it is not in my capacity as a member, but as the Parliament,” Metsola told POLITICO. After the so-called Qatargate corruption investigation began, “the scenario was different, which means I’m going to list everything which would anyway have been declared internally,” she said.
Metsola’s spokesperson added: “She wants to be as open as possible and set an example that other MEPs can follow.”
Terry Reintke, co-president of the Greens group, said Metsola’s disclosures showed the need for an independent EU ethics body based outside the Parliament. “Transparency should apply to all so it’s good that she’s making it public now,” Reintke said.
“I think that it also shows that we just need a much better enforcement of the rules and that we cannot leave everything up to internal scrutiny structures.”
The gifts Metsola received included: a gold model tower from senior Moroccan politician Naam Mayara; a white dress with golden embroidery from Fawzia Zainal, speaker in the parliament of Bahrain; a scarf from French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne; Sennheiser wireless earphones from the German Bundestag; a vase from the Czech presidency of the EU Council; a white blouse from Moldova’s President Maia Sandu; a book about Bruges from the rector of the College of Europe, Federica Mogherini; and a decorative plate from Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Benelux countries.
Metsola also received Champagne, chocolates, cookies, cake and dried sausage, which were “served in the course of the Parliament’s functions.”
For 125 of those gifts, Metsola’s declarations came after the deadline to notify them in accordance with the rules for MEPs. Under Parliament’s code of conduct for members, gifts should be disclosed at the latest by the end of the month following the month in which MEPs received them.
According to an annex to the code of conduct for MEPs, the scope of the gift rules covers “any” MEP representing Parliament in an official capacity, including the president. It is, nonetheless, the case that the person who must be notified about gifts is the president herself, or at least her own office.
According to an official from the Parliament press services, previous presidents tended to declare their gifts in one go at the end of the term, bypassing the process of putting them on the public register and instead directly informing the Parliament’s civil service.
Each declaration of a president was “done administratively, but was not put on the public register,” the official said.
According to public records, only one previous president — the EPP’s Antonio Tajani, who had the job from 2017 to 2019 — declared a gift on the public register. It was a book of portraits from a Portuguese politician.
However, there is no written rule that explicitly states the president is exempt from following the procedure covering other MEPs, and the European Parliament’s press service was unable to say where this interpretation of the rules sprung from or who was responsible for applying it in this way.
A spokesperson for Metsola said the “custom” was that the president of the Parliament has more leeway and is only expected to declare gifts when her term comes to an end. The gifts are not given to Metsola herself, but to the institution of the European Parliament, the official argued. Metsola is choosing to be more transparent than she needs to be by making public declarations while still in office, the spokesperson added, saying she will now regularly update the register gift by gift.
“It is not the same as for MEPs because these are gifts for the European Parliament accepted by the president,” the spokesperson said. “She’s breaking with previous practice from previous presidents to do this in a more transparent way, and as they come in, rather than as a big package in the end.”
“She wants to be as open as possible and set an example that other MEPs can follow,” the spokesperson added.
Asked where the written procedure spells out that looser rules apply to the president of the Parliament, the spokesperson said: “I don’t know exactly where it’s written but it’s a custom that’s put in place, it’s how previous presidents have done it. In this way it is, what you say, it’s established practice.”
Metsola received all the gifts she declared since becoming president on January 18, 2022.
EU Parliament officials also said that in the past there had been reluctance to be proactive about declaring presents to avoid breeding a culture of competitive gift-giving among lobbyists and MEPs.
Metsola is battling to repair Parliament’s reputation after the Qatargate controversy blew up last month. The investigation by Belgian prosecutors has seen four suspects detained, including a former vice president of the Parliament, MEP Eva Kaili, on preliminary corruption charges pending an investigation into alleged influence-buying involving Qatar and Morocco.
Former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri has now admitted his guilt and struck a deal to cooperate with the prosecutor in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
Earlier this month, Metsola announced 14 proposed reforms to the system to beef up the transparency rules for MEPs in the wake of Qatargate, including changes to make the gift register more visible on the Parliament’s website. Her plan was set out at a closed-door meeting with top Parliament politicians.
The only one of Metsola’s gifts that she has recorded as being worth more than €150 is one from the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, which she received in February 2022. It is described in the register as an “icon & drawer with individually wrapped dates.” A plaque on the gift itself describes it as a “shield representing Expo 2020 logo,” a world fair that the UAE held in Dubai between October 2021 and March 2022.
The gifts register applies to all MEPs but since the start of this legislature in mid-2019, only 10 lawmakers, including Metsola, have declared any gifts at all.
Daniel Caspary, a German EPP lawmaker who declared seven gifts, five of which he received while leading a Parliament delegation for relations with Southeast Asia, wrote to POLITICO: “Due to covid there were hardly any international activities within the last years. Perhaps that is why there are only a few colleagues who registered presents.”
As president, Metsola is ultimately responsible for sanctioning breaches of the code of conduct, after receiving advice from a panel of MEPs. This raises the strange prospect of Metsola having to rule on whether to sanction herself for missing the deadline.