Article by Benjamin Fox on Euractiv
Senior EU lawmakers have called for new transparency laws based on legislation used by the United States Congress in order to monitor the influence and activities of NGOs and third country actors.
Speaking during a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday (13 February), European People’s Party (EPP) lawmaker Monika Hohlmeier, who chairs the assembly’s Budgetary Control committee, called for the creation of an “EU equivalent to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act [FARA]” in a bid to increase control and transparency.
The US FARA legislation requires all third country politicians and their lobbying representatives to register and detail their work with US lawmakers, including any formal contract and fees, on a publicly accessible website.
The centre-right EPP has called for comprehensive financial pre-screening of NGOs before they are listed on the EU transparency register, and for contractual agreements between the European Commission and NGOs to be published.
The introduction of such a law would mark a significant step towards greater transparency in the EU institutions but would require a legislative proposal from the European Commission. Demands for an EU FARA are not currently part of the reform package proposed by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.
The status of NGOs and civil society groups has been drawn into the Qatargate corruption scandal because of the role of Fight Impunity, an organisation founded by former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, and which involved Francesco Giorgi, a former aide to Panzeri and the partner of Eva Kaili, the Greek MEP who is in custody amid accusations that she received hundreds of thousands of euros in illicit payments. Kaili has denied any wrongdoing.
Fight Impunity is believed to have been used as a front for illicit payments to Panzeri, Kaili and others from the likes of Qatar and Morocco. Panzeri has agreed to a plea bargain agreement with the Belgian authorities that could see him receiving a reduced jail sentence in exchange for detailing evidence of criminality by others.
Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for budget and administration, told MEPs that the Commission had suspended all payments to projects in Libya connected to No Peace Without Justice, which has also been implicated in the Qatargate scandal, “as a precautionary measure”.
“Some black sheep are threatening to discredit the good work of other NGOs,” said Hohlmeier, adding that “Kaili’s predicament shows that NGOs can far too easily be used and exploited as a tool for criminal undertakings.”
“We can’t have third state nationals and criminals using NGOs as some sort of cover to influence political decision making, pay bribes and get their hands on EU funds,” she added.
However, the EPP’s attempts to make political capital out of the fact that, so far, the MEPs and officials implicated in the scandal are all from the Socialist and Democrat group has prompted an angry backlash from other political groups.
Udo Bullmann, the German socialist who was recently appointed chair of the Parliament’s human rights sub-committee, commented that “I don’t think we should be carrying out a witch-hunt against civil society”.
“Colleagues are determined to make sure that our work is not discredited, we stand for people who don’t have a voice and whose rights have been violated,” he said, adding that “it’s not NGOs alone who are under suspicion for abuse of funds. All of those who have received money have to be prepared to be investigated and be accountable.”
“This is a corruption scandal not an NGO scandal,” said Green deputy Hannah Neumann, while Manon Aubry, leader of the leftist GUE faction, accused the EPP of using NGOs as a “diversion”.
“The EPP Group is not against organisations that play by the rules and do extremely useful, valuable work for our society. We are fighting against those that are not transparent, with shady financing and participating in illegal activities. They do not share our values. They are enemies of our democracy”, said Hohlmeier.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]