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The European Parliament has opened an investigation into allegations of harassment against Belgian lawmaker Assita Kanko, according to documents seen by POLITICO.
Kanko, 42, is one of six vice-presidents of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), and her political specialties include EU migration policy.
What is at stake is not just the reputation of an MEP or the well-being of his staff and former colleagues. Any potential sanction against Kanko would again put the spotlight on the European Parliament. There have already been two confirmed cases of harassment by European lawmakers so far this year. The reputation of the EU’s democratic decision-making body has also been shaken over the past six months by the Qatargate corruption scandal.
The investigation follows a complaint filed in November 2022, according to the documents. Under Parliament’s rules, the opening of an inquiry means that the case has already undergone an initial “preliminary study” to decide whether to investigate.
Since his election in 2019, Kanko has had 13 parliamentary staffers, according to transparency website ParlTrack. This does not include a number of interns, who are not listed on the website but whose names have been confirmed to POLITICO. A European legislator normally has three parliamentary assistants at a time.
POLITICO spoke to someone familiar with the investigation, three former Kanko staffers and two other parliamentary officials who worked closely with the MEP or her team. They were all granted anonymity as they feared speaking out would harm their careers or interfere with the harassment investigation. Staff members provided written texts, emails and voice recording messages from Kanko while working there.
These allegedly showed she was making requests on weekends, on holidays and outside normal office hours – both early in the morning and sometimes even in the middle of the night.
All of these individuals alleged that there was a culture of fear within Kanko’s office, as she gave orders that were impossible to follow and made personal demands that were not appropriate for members of her staff.
In an emailed statement to POLITICO, Kanko said she would not comment on the allegations against her while the investigation is ongoing. This, she said, was “out of respect for the procedure, the committee running it and the European Parliament, and out of respect for the privacy of all parties”.
“A former member of staff lodged a complaint with the European Parliament against his dismissal and this complaint was heard and rejected. He also initiated what is called a “harassment procedure”. To my regret and frustration, these procedures are taking a long time and are therefore ongoing,” Kanko said. “I have provided all of my arguments and rebuttals in these proceedings and I am in a position of strength. But I have also followed the rules of procedure the whole time.
A spokeswoman for his Flemish nationalist N-VA party declined to comment.
Kanko, who was born in Burkina Faso, has been active in Belgian politics for more than a decade. After a stint as a local politician for the French-speaking liberals, she switched parties in 2018 for the N-VA. In 2019, she was elected Member of the European Parliament. Her main focus is on EU migration policy in the Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.
Charges of “mind games”
The European Parliament defines psychological harassment as “any abusive behavior which occurs over a period of time, is repetitive or systematic and involves physical behaviour, spoken or written language, gestures or other acts which are intentional and which may harm personality, dignity or physical or mental health. the psychological integrity of any person.
Two of the former staffers described instances of what they saw as Kanko’s alleged mind games. “She makes you think you’re the one who did something wrong or said something wrong, even when you have proof to the contrary,” one said.
While all staff members acknowledged that working in politics inevitably sometimes means working irregular hours, they alleged that Kanko behaved unreasonably. “It always had to be done immediately, so you left it up to your friends and family to deal with his request,” said the first staff member mentioned above. “The next day, she had changed her mind to go back to the original plan. It happened constantly and drove us all crazy.
Staff members also described an alleged lack of boundaries between Kanko’s demands for professional and personal gain. She reportedly asked staff members to pick up, feed or babysit her child, and to do personal errands or administrative tasks.
When asked why it took so long for someone to file a formal complaint, former staff said they were afraid of the consequences or wanted to move on with their lives.
It’s unclear when the anti-harassment investigation at the European Parliament will end, as timelines vary from case to case. The investigation is being carried out by the so-called advisory committee which deals with complaints of harassment concerning MPs.
This committee is made up of three legislators, two parliamentary assistants and one person representing the staff of the European Parliament. When their investigation is complete, a notice is sent to the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola. If the investigation reveals evidence of harassment, Metsola announces the charges and potential sanctions against the MEP during a plenary session of Parliament. Sanctions may include the temporary deprivation of the legislator of his per diem.
A spokesman for the European Parliament said that “due to the confidentiality of the work of the advisory committee, we cannot say whether a procedure has been launched or not”.