How Qatargate Boosted MEPs’ Travel Claims

Members of the European Parliament are required to declare any trips that 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 website 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, inviting organization, 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:

  • 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;
  • 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

Champion of all categories of (declared) travel, German Green MP Reinhard Bütikofer.

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?

Travel 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 the 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 participate 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 565 remaining MEPs, having declared 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 MEPs who declare have only one trip to their credit (there 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 focuses 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 are not talking here about 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 accepted plane tickets (in business or economy, depending on the distance), and a total of 47 hotel nights offered. To participate 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 statement in four has however been published late (27.1%) since the start of the legislature. Some documents are also incomplete: six MEPs, for example, failed to specify that the flight offered to them was in “business” class.

3. Strange Travelers

Travel declarations, which are brief, by definition only offer a limited view of the content of the mission. The inviting powers are often mentioned in one line, sometimes clear (a known organization, administration or 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 Foreign Minister 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 should 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. While 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 traveled 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), had gone to Ecuador or Venezuela.

According to the analysis of Le Soir, 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, it would be a desire to “find a negotiated solution”.