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They’d come to talk policy — how to fix Europe’s competitiveness problem, how to keep gas prices stable.
Instead, the 27 politicians leading the EU’s countries couldn’t escape a topic they know better than anything else — politics. Specifically, the political fallout from the mushrooming corruption scandal embroiling the European Parliament ended up overshadowing discussion in Brussels at the final gathering of the year Thursday.
In the run-up to the meeting, diplomats had played down expectations there would be much talk about allegations Qatar may have used bags of cash to buy influence at the European Parliament, stressing it was a matter for officials in Brussels.
But once leaders were alone together, they took a different view. In fact, many leaders — most seasoned politicians with an instinct for the public mood — were deeply concerned, according to several officials and diplomats who spoke to POLITICO.
It was the only topic the media asked about on the way in, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recounted to his colleagues, saying the group had to coordinate its messaging. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis captured the sentiment of many leaders: This has the chance to poison the entire EU. Latvia’s Krišjānis Kariņš also chimed in: We can’t let this spill over into other EU institutions.
“Events like that, corruption like that erodes the trust of the public in the institutions,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said later that night after spending the day with the 27 leaders. “This is painful and we have to work hard again to regain trust and confidence.”
Indeed, the group’s most notorious EU-bashing leader, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, was quick to make political hay from the current drama on Thursday.
“Everyone knew that Brussels is filled with corruption issues, but now the matter reached a level that police also had to take action,” he said in a video uploaded to his Facebook page, describing Brussels as buzzing with guesses over who might fall next.
“It is time,” the Hungarian leader said, “that we drain the swamp here in Brussels.”
As the criminal probe into whether foreign countries paid current and former MEPs and parliamentary assistants to influence decisions, many leaders were well aware that European citizens may not distinguish between the various EU institutions, leaving them concerned about reputational damage to the entire structure.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was upfront about the challenges in his post-summit press conference, calling the corruption scandal in the European Parliament a “serious matter” that “can shake trust in democracy and parliamentarianism.”
Outside the summit, the scandal was already fueling election politicking with an eye toward 2024, when the entire 705-person Parliament will face voters.
In a surprise move, the behemoth center-right European People’s Party on Thursday launched a blistering attack on its main rival, the Socialist and Democrats group, whose members have been at the center of the scandal — namely the Greek MEP Eva Kaili, a now-former Parliament vice president.
“Hypocrisy,” and “holier-than-thou” were just a few epithets the EPP tossed around.
But the decision to go on the attack backfired hours later when the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) announced that an EPP MEP, as well as Kaili, was part of a fraud probe connected to the EU budget.
The genesis for the shift in tone emerged during a pre-summit confab in Brussels Thursday morning, which brought together EU leaders, senior Commission officials and EPP bigwigs. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged colleagues during that meeting to take a tough line on the S&D.
The more pugnacious style was a marked change from just a few days ago, when EPP leader Manfred Weber urged MEPs not to use the crisis for “party political battles.”
“The corruption charges against one of our highest representatives of this European Parliament has significantly damaged our institution and affected the trust of people in the European Union as a whole,” he told a plenary session of the Parliament. “The damage to European democracy is too big to be now used for party political battles.”
Given the rapid about-face, there were a few wry smiles in the EU leaders’ massive discussion room when news circulated that the EPP MEP had been caught up in a fraud probe. At least one prime minister from the centrist Renew Europe group also partook in the schadenfreude, a source in the room told POLITICO.
It was, in effect, the starting gun for the 2024 elections, fired just before midnight as EU leaders left the Europa building and headed home to strategize.
Nick Vinocur, Wilhelmine Preussen and Elena Giordano contributed reporting.