MEPs should finance their own trips abroad, says German Green

MEPs should pay for their own trips abroad to avoid suspicion of undue influence, a German member of the European Parliament (EP) has said after rebelling during a recent visit to Azerbaijan.

“We receive a budget from the taxpayers for expenditure like this in order to unquestionably guarantee independence and integrity,” German Green MEP Niklas Nienaß told EUobserver.

But there are also “many so-called ‘friendship groups’ in various countries around the world. [EU] Parliament, which offer beautiful trips and exclusive gatherings outside the official protocol of the EP,” he said.

“You would think that a paid vacation or a nice party wouldn’t change your stance on political issues. But then, if that doesn’t work out, why is the [foreign] plans continue to pay for it? Nienaß added.

The MEP spoke after resigning last week from ‘Rumra & Smart villages’, a cross-party group dealing with investment in remote areas.

Members’ expenses are borne by the EP when they travel on an official delegation.

They also receive a special allowance of €4,716 per year to spend on unofficial work trips abroad. They are intended to declare any gift or invitation of a value greater than €150.

But two of Rumra’s former colleagues from Nienaß, German liberal MEP Engin Eroglu and Slovenian conservative MEP Franc Bogovič, along with five of their staff in the European Parliament, traveled last September to Zangilan in the Upper -Karabakh in Azerbaijan, partly in the pay of Baku. .

They covered their own flights, but failed to state that Azerbaijan hosted them at the Marriot Hotel in Baku and tasted and dined them on their four-day trip, which included visits to a vineyard, d a carpet museum and tourist attractions.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the scene of a recent ethnic war between Azerbaijan and Armenia and senior Western diplomats do not visit there for fear of appearing to side with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, a fearsome dictatorship, is notorious for its shady public relations tactics and so-called caviar diplomacy – luxury trips for foreign politicians in exchange for favors.

He is also negotiating new energy deals with the EU, bypassing Russia, in a plot of geopolitical proportions.

But amid the obvious potential for controversy around Rumra’s trip to Zangilan, Nienaß’s fellow MEPs planned the trip behind his back, he said.

“Everyone knew that this was a politically sensitive request and that I advocated for the highest level of independence from the start of the intergroup [Rumra]. Yet I was knowingly left out,” said Nienaß.

“The trust we had built over the years was shattered,” he said of his resignation.

Eroglu had been a hawkish critic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev before his trip. But he and Bogovič spoke well of Azerbaijan during their stay and after their return.

And while no one has leveled corruption charges, their handling of the Zangilan visit risked further damage to parliament’s reputation following the Qatargate corruption case, Nienaß said.

“I wouldn’t put this trip in the same basket as Qatargate. But, of course, it shows how third countries are trying to influence EU lawmakers. And that’s accepted,” he said. declared to this website.

“Questioning the integrity of some of our members undermines the integrity of all European politics,” he said.

Human error

Details of the trip to Zangilan first emerged in a survey conducted by Stockholm-based online media Blankspot on January 16.

The parliament has also posted an itinerary following questions from the media.

Eroglu and Bogovič denied wrongdoing and blamed their initial non-declaration of Baku’s hospitality on human error by their aides.

The visit came after Azerbaijan’s EU ambassador contacted him last June to see a “smart village” in Zangilan, Bogovič told blankspot.se.

“During discussions with Azerbaijani counterparts, we focused on issues related to the revival of rural and mountainous areas and did not discuss or comment on the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” he said. Bogovic said.

Erogul and Bogovič also defended their actions in an email to Nienaß, seen by EUobserver.

“We paid for our own flights, we didn’t accept any gifts,” they said when they heard of his resignation in Rumra.

“We even had an explicit agreement with Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the EU that we would not mention or discuss the conflict with Armenia during our trip in any way,” they added. .

But despite all their promises of good faith, Nienaß said visits of this kind should in future openly be financed solely by the EP’s own funds.

“Travel to third countries must always be fully paid for by members… It must be clear that we are only working for the benefit of European citizens,” he said.

“Dissolving Friend Groups”

Nienaß advocated the “dissolution of friendship groups” between foreign capitals and MEPs as a way to “regain trust” with the European public.

“We also need to strengthen the rights of whistleblowers,” he said.

“It is impossible for assistants who have knowledge of wrongdoing in their offices to be subject to punishment if they speak out,” Nienaß said.

It remains to be seen whether his proposals attract the attention of parliamentary reformers in the wake of the still ongoing Qatargate affair.

But blankspot.se, the Swedish and German investigators, plan to shed light on Zangilan’s journey in future articles on EUobserver, opening it as a case study for debates on how existing parliamentary codes of ethics work. in daily life in Brussels. .


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