Democracy Under Pressure at the EU Level

, by Manuel Ballotta

Democracy Under Pressure at the EU Level
European Parliament, CC BY 2.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

This text is written and published as part of the Democracy Under Pressure Campaign of JEF Europe.

As 2024 marks the 19th edition of the Young European Federalists’ ’Democracy Under Pressure’ Campaign, The New Federalist is joining in the effort to raise awareness towards the systematic weaking of democratic values in Europe.

The democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions under threat

The last year has been a particularly eventful one with respect to threats to the democratic legitimacy and values which are upheld in the founding treaties of the European Union. 2022 ended with perquisitions in the offices and homes of several individuals, including MEP’s, Parliament officials, and ex MEPs, under what then became ‘Qatargate’ –the scandal which revolves around the case that these individuals have allegedly accepted cash in exchange for promoting the interests of Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania (as well as other instances of misuse of public money). If this was not enough, the past few weeks have been also particularly hectic in Brussels, as several allegations were made with regard to the possibility that some MEP’s may actually be Russian spies. What could all this mean for the future of democracy in the EU?


This story is extremely intricate, and unravelling to its full extent is not only difficult, but impossible, in fact also the Belgian public prosecutor is struggling to do so. What is evident, is that until now none of the suspects has been officially charged, and that some of them, including Eva Kaili, who was one of the EP’s vice presidents at the time the scandal broke, is still allowed to work as Parliamentarian (despite her immunity being strapped in February which paves the way for the investigations to continue). All of this is feeding into a strong perception of impunity by the public towards the EP, that has the potential to strongly harm the EP’s democratic legitimacy. Furthermore, it leaves open questions about the influence that foreign actors may have or may have had over the development of EU policies. In fact, it looks like Qatar, for example, has paid its agents inside the EP with the objective of stifling critiques to its human rights record, and in an attempt to facilitate an agreement for visa-free travel with the EU (which was suspended after the scandal came to light). This is extremely troubling considering that the EP is the EU institution which is usually seen as the most vocal critique of violations of human rights around the world.

The European Parliament’s internal response

The EP responded in September by voting a set of reforms which came into effect in November. These include the obligation for MEP’s to declare inputs and suggestions from external actors, more transparency on the publication of meetings with representatives from third countries, expanded definition of conflicts of interest, wider rules on the publication of meetings so they apply to all MEPs and cover meetings with third country representatives, extended threshold to declare additional incomes, obligation to declare assets at the beginning and end of every term in office, a stronger role for the Advisory Committee, and restrictions on unofficial groupings’ activities. Despite this, several claims were made, including by MEPs themselves, that these rules are not enough, and that much more effort should be directed to improve transparency and fight corruption. A currently ongoing positive development is the discussions which concerns the creation of an EU inter-institutional ethics body. However this would only be a standards setting body, and the Council still seems uncertain about joining, so it remains to be seen how effective this will be in tackling EU-wide corruption, including in the EP.

Russia’s agents

On the front of the spying allegations, at this stage there is only one MEP who is being investigated. The allegations were launched in January by a Russian Independent investigative newspaper the Insider, against Tatjana Zdanoka, who used to be part of the Greens in the EP until when she refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and is currently sitting as a non-attached MEP. The claims of the Insider, supported by several leaked documents (in addition to dubious voting records by the MEP, including on the Russian invasion of Ukraine), revolved around the possibility that Zdanoka has been a Russian agent since at least 2015. Following the allegations, which she denied, she is currently being investigated by both Latvia's State Security Service (VDD), and by an EP internal investigation. While it remains to be seen how this will turn out, three Latvian MEP’s have claimed that there may be others like her in the EP.

Can we trust the European Parliament?

With over 400 million people eligible to vote in the upcoming European Elections in June, the facts which concern both Qatargate and the spying allegations are extremely disturbing. At a time where anti-democratic forces both inside the EU and beyond are gaining influence, the European Elections should be a way to showcase the health of European Democracy, but if serious democratic threats such as the ones which were identified in this article are allowed to reign free, the trust of European citizens towards the EU can only be hurt. As such, preserving the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament must remain the absolute priority. Despite this, especially with Qatargate, the results of the investigations until now have been extremely disappointing, considering that there is extensive proof of the crimes committed by the people involved. For this reason, in line with the Democracy Under Pressure campaign, this article may be seen as a call to European Officials to take these threats seriously and do all they can to make sure that any culprit is identified and charged, and to make sure that these facts will not repeat themselves again at any point in the future. Ultimately, preserving the trust of the European citizens towards the only directly democratically elected body in the EU, is necessary to protect European Democracy.

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