MEP Marc Botenga (The Left, Belgian Workers’ Party) joins Cross-Border Talks for a discussion on the recent corruption scandals in the European Parliament. He suggests how a left-wing perspective on anti-corruption could be like. We also discuss how change in the EU’s periphery could be connected to overcoming corruption not only on the national level in the EU countries, but also at the level of Brussels and EU, given that the ‘stabilocracies’ of politicians such Boyko Borissov have enjoyed EU umbrella for a long time, thus preventing the EU money from reaching the masses and strengthening the anti-EU sentiments today.
The entire transcription of the interview is available below the video and audio.
Hello, everybody. Welcome to another interview in the scope of Cross-Border Talks. Today we are meeting the member of European Parliament, Mark Botenga, member of the Left in the European Parliament and a member of the Belgian Workers Party. Today we are going to discuss is corruption, anti-corruption, corruption in the European Parliament, the ways to combat it and the left understanding of anti-corruption, if there can be a particular one. Hello, Mr. Botenga, and thank you for being with us today.
Hello. Thank you very much for having me.
I will be conducting this interview together with my Bulgarian colleague and co-creator of Cross Border Talks. Vladimir. Hello, Vladimir.
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Last December, following the eruption of the Moroccogate and then Qatargate corruption scandal, the members of European Parliament spoke very loudly about zero tolerance for corruption. The Left in the European Parliament, however, published a statement after that in which they claimed that the European Parliament, had not lived up to its promises. In other words, the means that were included to combat corruption in the Parliament were considered not strong enough by the Left group. The Left group also stated that there are more problems than just mere corruption: there is corporate lobbying and other issues that need to be addressed if we want accountability and integrity around the European Parliament as citizens of Europe.
I think we all want our representatives to be honest and to be working for our common good. Then what is going on in the European Parliament and how can corruption be eliminated from this area? Mr. Botenga, does the European Parliament genuinely fight against corruption now at the moment? And if the means employed are too limited, then why?
I think it’s a structural problem. I mean, we need to obviously make a difference between corruption, which is illegal and influence, corporate influence or other influences which can be fully and totally legal, but which obviously are not what citizens want or expect from their representatives.
With illegal corruption, it’s very easy. Some of the allegations that have been made in the framework of what has been called the Qatar gate, sometimes with images that remind us very old mafia films – images of suitcases of money, that is, of things that we traditionally associate to very traditional corruption cases. These are practices which are obviously illegal and need to be dealt with by law enforcement. We can and we should guarantee the most complete transparency on this: whatever can be done should be done to make it clear that any illegal practices are made more difficult, and if they happen, they must be dealt with in the most efficient and effective way. But this is only part of the story.
The other part of the story, and this is where I think the Left and the mainstream have different views, is when we look at the legal forms of influence and the culture of money inside the institution. It’s a structural problem, because clearly the people that have been involved do not consider it a problem. They do not consider it weird to have such amounts of money going either through their hands or through their bank accounts, while most citizens will never ever in their life come close to the amount of money that has been recovered in the framework of the Qatargate. There is a toxic culture of money that has created, let’s say, a loss of awareness of what are we, as MEPS, defending.
If you’re defending, for example, people that cannot get cannot make it to the end of the month, how can you really represent them? How can you really defend them if you not only have extremely high salaries, but have the potential to get a lot of benefits, extras, some of them legal, some of them illegal?
When we speak about the culture of money, this is mostly based on what is legal inside the European Parliament or indeed inside the European institutions. Let me give examples. There are members of the European Parliament that gain much more money by outside jobs than they do through the parliamentary representation. There are members of Parliament that gain up to 100, 200,000 euro or even more per year through side jobs, because they are on the board of a kind of financial corporation or because they have another complementary activity in the private sector. Is it legal? Sure, it is. The question is: who are you really representing here? Are you representing the citizens or are you representing the company you’re working for, which in a fully legal way pays you 100,000, €200,000 a year?
What we’ve been saying as the Left is that we need to break with this culture of money. This culture has led a number of members of Parliament to live a lifestyle much closer to the lifestyle of the European bourgeoisie than to the lifestyle of the majority of European workers and citizens.
Is the European Parliament going far enough? No. Let me very briefly tell you why. In December 2022, at the height of the scandal, the European Parliament adopted a very strong resolution with a number of important measures on transparency. A little bit later there came a proposal from the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, much more limited. It does not copy all of the measures proposed in this resolution of December and the discussions around it have not been very transparent. These discussions have been taking place very often behind closed doors. The proposed measures that were voted by a very large majority in December have been watered down and have been weakened so as to limit the scope of transparency and the kind of checks and balances that were proposed in December.
Rather than focus on, for example, the culture of money and corporate influence, the shift has been decisively done towards a narrow focus on third parties, third countries trying to influence European policy. This is, of course, a part of the discussion, but the discussion should be much broader. It should be about the illegitimate, the legal, but illegitimate ways of influence that many European corporations are exerting on European members of Parliament.
So you basically argued that until corporate lobbying is properly addressed and regulated, then there will be no accountability, no integrity in the European Parliament. What do you mean by regulation? How do you imagine this? I could also add another question: how to strengthen the voice of ordinary people in the European Parliament, how to make the members of the European Parliament hear and listen to the voters more effective?
As for the first part – indeed we need absolute transparency on who you meet. How does the situation look like now? The MEPS that have been working on health files, on pharmaceutical files, have not declared a single meeting with the pharmaceutical industry, or have done it only recently. And I would be very surprised if indeed they had not met a single person from the pharmaceutical industry.
We need to make it binding. We need to be very clear that when you work on a file, and you meet someone, a corporate lobbyist, it needs to be public. Let’s be clear about this. No hidden meetings, no forgotten meetings or whatever. It needs to be clear. Transparency needs to be part of the institutional layout. And this is, I think, the very start.
Secondly, we need to work on a number of other issues to see to what extent can we limit or even exclude these lobbyists from Parliament. For instance, the CEO of Pfizer refused to come to the European Parliament in order to explain what actually happened during the negotiations on the vaccine contracts. This was a humiliation of the European Parliament and yet the head of the European Parliament, did not decide that we would exclude Pfizer lobbyists from the European Parliament. Why not? Why could we not exclude them? They disrespect us. They’re here to influence politicians. This is their function. This is a function lobbyists have, and they do not even have the basic respect, even after getting a lot of money through the contracts, to show up and show accountability towards the European Parliament, the European citizens. I think we should also be able to exclude them.
We should ban side jobs, let’s be very clear. The European Parliament actually tabled an amendment twice last month on that and it was adopted. The European Parliament has been called twice to ban side jobs from members of the European Parliament. Why don’t we do it? There’s something very weird inside the European Parliament: you vote in favor of something, but then it’s not applied. How is that possible, even if it concerns your own institution?
We should also have more of a cooling off period in order to avoid revolving doors so that it would be not possible for an MEP after his term in office to go very quickly to a multinational corporation. We need to put checks there. We need to put a cooling off period which is a lot longer than what we have now, for example, at the level of the European Commission.
I also think that we need to bring down the salaries and this makes the connection to your second question. We need to cut the salaries of members of European Parliament. Members of the European Parliament today to have a net salary which is about €7,500. Moreover, they get about 350 euros every day. They come to Parliament, sign their presence and get a €350 extra a day. On a monthly basis, without office expenses and stuff, they easily make about €12,000-13,000 a month. Whatever country you are from in the European Union, you know that this is an amount of money that has nothing to do with the average salary of a European worker.
You cannot understand what it means when gas prices go up, what it means when the prices in supermarkets rise. If you have these salaries, you do not even imagine people wondering: do I still have enough money to make it to the end of the month? And this of course influences you. Yo do not consider these matters urgent.
We need to bring these salaries down. This also goes to the European Commission. Ursula von der Leyen, Chairwoman of the European Commission, gets about 30,000 euro per month. These are amounts of money that honestly disconnect you completely from the common people, the working class of Europe. So I think it’s important for us to come down on these salaries.
Then, how to make citizens’ voices heard inside Europe? This has to do with mobilization. You are heard inside the institution when there’s a strong movement outside. Remember what happened when we had mobilization from port workers throughout Europe, from the north to the south of Europe. The ports went on strike against liberalization plans of the European Commission. They succeeded in stopping these plans of liberalization and privatization of certain port services. Those are important victories. The same happened when workers from Ryanair united all over Europe, in the north, east, west and south, and they started a strike in 7 or 8 countries. Then people in the European institutions decided: we need to listen to this. This is serious.
So if the citizens and the working class want to be heard at the European level, this can be done through mobilization. Could be in one country, but the best way would be to do it in many countries together. A European strike in a number of countries, a European demonstration or national demonstrations at the same time – this really can have an influence and to break this European bubble where everyone just talks to each other.
Let us discuss more the left perspective on anticorruption. As somebody coming from Bulgaria, I need to say that in Bulgaria it’s quite normal to associate anti-corruption with the urban liberal political tendency. The left wing somehow stays away from the anti-corruption rhetoric. That’s why I wanted to ask you, what does left-wing anti-corruption look like? What differs it from a liberal anti-corruption, which probably usually in our country means that international or financial capital supports some replacement of oligarchical elites? Who is the object of the left wing anti-corruption?
I think the liberal vision on anti-corruption is to an extent to facilitate security and contractual agreements between big companies, banks and so on.
In the end, as I say, and this is really important, we need people representing the people. We need people from the working class representing the working class. We need to make sure that when we speak about anti-corruption, we speak about interests. Whose interests are you defending? Many people that are legitimately fighting corruption from a right wing or liberal perspective, they have no problem in furthering interests from cooperation for multinational companies as long as it’s done legally. For us, acting from the left and from a working class perspective, what we want is to assure the interests of the working class to be heard. In order to do this, we need to find a completely different political culture, a political culture that forces representatives to listen to the working class.
This can be done, as I said, through mobilization, through strikes, through direct pressure. It should also be done by bringing the working class to parliament. I don’t know how it is in Bulgaria, but in many European countries, parliaments are filled with so-called liberal professionals. They come from liberal professions, sometimes directly from the high circles of business. At the European Union level, a European commissioner Thierry Breton was a CEO of a French multinational just before he became commissioner. This is the influence. The corporate interests are often in a very legal way, a completely legal way, very well represented by these people.
How do we impose policies in favor of the working class? One of the main things is that we need people that are close to the working class rather than close to the bourgeoisie for this. I believe that bringing down salaries is fundamental. You need people that go there because they want to fight, to struggle for the interests of the common worker, and not for their own career and the great salary.
What we need is to make sure that people getting into public office do that for the cause and for the cause of, from our perspective, the working class. This is really fundamental. From an election perspective, we support as much transparency as we can get. Transparency is important, control checks are important. But let’s never make the mistake of forgetting about the main, like the indirect ways of influence, the illegal corruption and so on. This is something which is widespread. We know this, but the indirect and more legal ways of influence, they are just as much and probably more widespread.
We need to ask questions like: whose interest are you fighting for? Whose interests are you defending? You table this amendment. This amendment directly defends the interests of the pharmaceutical industry and goes against people that need more affordable drugs. Your amendment facilitates speculation in the banking sector or in the agricultural sector. So you are defending the interests of big corporations and you are going against the farmers, you’re going against the people that want to have their savings protected in the bank. This is really important to show that there is a community of interest between let’s say traditional politicians, mainstream politicians and the business establishment, and that we need to break this community of interests in a number of different ways that I enumerated.
Cut down their salaries, have more working class people, have a strong working class movement and social movements to put the pressure on to force the establishment politicians to change position.
I think that if we have this vision of an interest-based vision and constantly ask whose interest, whose class interests are you really defending, then we have a strong left wing and global narrative.
There is another community, mostly on a political level, which we saw in the case of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who was on very good terms with the European Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker. At the same time it was publicly known that it was a government with a lot of corruption issues. The Party of European Left sponsored the study called Binding The Guardian, written by Albena Azmanova, which claimed that the European Commission is complicit in some toleration or support of abuses of rule in Bulgaria. My question would be: what happens when political expediency leads to a situation when some regimes, political figures or corruption practices are tolerated because in the European Parliament, for example, votes are coming for the right party?
It’s, you know, unfortunate and let me broaden the issue because it’s a problem that you can see in many political domains. We have talked a lot in the European Parliament these days, these weeks, these months about international politics or foreign policy. The European Union says we defend human rights, we defend democracy, we defend international law. In a number of countries, they say: we put sanctions on Russia because they violate international law. And this is clear! But at the same time, Israel violates international law, and has been violating international law for decades. And there’s no there’s no sanctions. There’s hardly any reaction at all.
We say we don’t want to import gas or oil from countries that are at war. Azerbaijan has been involved in the armed conflict with Armenia. Nevertheless, the European Union has been saying: we will import more gas from Azerbaijan. There’s been the Saudi war on Yemen, and we import oil from Saudi Arabia.
Why am I saying this? Because what creates the preferences are the interests. This is what happens when the European Union considers its interests of supporting Israel more important than respecting or imposing respect for international law. There’s a number of examples of double standards, where the final actions depend not on the big values, but on the concrete interests.
We cannot get things that we want, gas or oil, from countries involved in an armed conflict, in a war and in the colonization or the illegal occupation of territories. This is a great issue for national parliaments and inside the European Parliament. For now, there is a nice rhetoric about defending values, but in practice it’s all about interests, economic interests.
Why have we in the European Parliament spoken so much about certain countries and we have never spoken about other countries? This has a clear political meaning behind this. I will give an example which is not concerning corruption, but might give you an idea. We, the Left, tried to put on the agenda the question of repressing of demonstrations in France. This was refused. We could not speak about the repression of demonstrations in France, while, if the same things happen in another country, it’s an important topic inside the European Parliament. Even a debate on the proposal was refused, which shows that there’s other interests behind it.
This goes back to what I said before: we really need, from our perspective, to say what is going on? Where are the interests of the people we represent? What are the working class interests we are defending? What’s in the interest of the working classes of our country, of our continent? And how can we defend this? Also, we must not be afraid to denounce corruption, influence or whatsoever.
I’ve worked a lot on, for example, the text messages, among others, between the chairman of the European Commission and the CEO of Pfizer. This has been named as an example of bad governance by the ombudsman. The institution of the ombudsman of the European Union, the Court of Auditors of the European Union has criticized these text messages, saying this is not normal in a negotiation on contracts to have parallel text messages WhatsApp messages. We need to bring this out and to make people aware of it. We must not think only in strictly parliamentary-electoral terms like ‘ah, if the Parliament does this or this, we’re not going to we’re not going to win’. Inside this bubble, things are not going to change. The way to change things is to bring stuff out to the public and then mobilize people and say: this is not normal. This should not be accepted.
As I said, because some leaders are close to corporate interests, there’s stuff going on that’s unacceptable. They are giving themselves privileges. They should not be entitled to very expensive trips, for example. We work on a daily basis to bring out these scandals, this is an important part of our activity. And to say an alternative is possible.
Let us finish with a question which may sound very naive, but in any case, for me it makes sense. It has been discussed and you also said that usually in national parliaments or national governments, the big business is somehow more represented. Then, these authorities are also somehow related to the communication with European institutions and absorption of European funds. In the case of Bulgaria, there is some rising anti-European or anti-Western sentiment. Probably one of the reasons is that European money is not in fact benefiting or reaching the common man in such a level that has to happen. So the question is what can be done so that European money reaches deeper into societies on the periphery of the EU?
It’s a broader question, I think. The European money comes with demands for reform. It comes with an internal market which is based on competition. And of course, in a competition the stronger will win and some will win, the bigger ones will win, the stronger ones will win. Not necessarily the best one. It’s not because you win in a competition that you are the best one. This is even true in football. So it’s very much true in economics. We have seen that some countries, what you call on the periphery of Europe, have seen their industry weakened. They have seen their country integrated in the economic periphery of certain other states.
Germany has played a big part in this. Of course many countries in south Eastern Europe have experienced the economic influence of Germany. When you impose market logic and competition of one against the other, this is going to be inevitable. But it also came with the austerity measures which were imposed on many countries saying that, okay, you need to cut down, you need to privatize, you need to liberalize. This, obviously, once again offered more companies, more sectors to the market. What does that mean? It means stronger companies. And then they use this to get lower wages and set one group of workers against the other. Then, when the market is created, you have the European funds that want to address specifically one or the other problem.
Even if people see the European money to build a bridge, they will not necessarily be happy about this money. It’s very nice to have a bridge. But if at the same time, you don’t find a job or a quality job, if the the European Union allows you to work 400 hours extra without getting paid, like in Hungary, If all of this passes without a problem because it’s in the interests of big corporations, German or others, if you see your banking sector taken over by foreign banks (like it happened in the South of Europe)… If you see where the investment goes, you realise these funds will not compensate for that.
If you want to build support for European integration, it cannot be done on these grounds. Many workers from countries like Poland, the Baltic states or other countries want to go to find jobs in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium. This is not a coincidence. This is due to economic policies and to competition because there’s no European integration in that sphere – instead, it is basically a competition that brings together and concentrates power in certain centers. So if we want to break it, if we want more solidarity, then we really need to look at the common interest between workers from Belgium, France, Bulgaria or Poland in order to break with the mechanism that puts one against the other in order to bring, for example, wages down.
This would bring a dynamic of a completely different Europe. Not a Europe of today that says: we will give you some money, but in exchange, you need to privatize this, bring down wages, and be more competitive. This would be a Europe that would say: we want to get wages up, to get a spiral towards the top, a positive evolution rather than always generalizing the worst things and going there where costs and salaries are lower. This requires European solidarity, true European solidarity. This requires cooperation. This requires European funds at a much higher level, especially now with the transition, the climate transition, the digital transition.
The European Union has liberalized state aid rules. But which countries have been able to give more aid to their countries? Surely, the wealthier countries, say Germany, France, Italy. So this increases the inequality inside Europe as well, inside the European Union. It is not a matter of communication on these funds, the European funds. The issue is the fundamental dynamic, the fundamental market dynamics inside the European Union, which increases inequality and power.
We discussed serious problems and it looks like you have a positive message that there could be anticorruption of the common man or of the worker. And also this ordinary man or worker could be subject to European modernity, which is, of course, great and hopeful. Many people in our region might be skeptical to hear that, but we also maybe should be hopeful of change. Thank you, Mr Botenga, for coming to Cross-Border Talks. I invite our listeners to continue to follow our podcast and visit our sites.