Conflict of interest fears cast shadow over EU budget talks

International

Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. After almost two years of sparring, the EU will be discussing the bloc’s budget to work out Europe’s spending plans for the next seven years. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — As European Union leaders deliberated over their 1 trillion-euro ($1.1 trillion) budget Thursday, lawmakers were deeply concerned about potential conflicts of interest that could see hundreds of millions of euros in funds granted to companies linked to some of the very people deciding how the money should be spent.

One high-profile case concerns Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis. A leaked EU audit last year concluded that the populist billionaire might have had a conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire. More than 100 million euros could be involved, according to multiple reports about the audit.

Babis denies any wrongdoing and has accused the EU of trying to destabilize the Czech Republic.

But EU concerns are not just confined to the Czech Republic. The business interests of leaders in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and possibly others are also raising eyebrows in Brussels, where European institutions lack the tools and law to effectively combat the problem.

The allegations of possible fraud eat away at public confidence in the European project at a time when far-right and anti-migrant parties are gaining political traction and just after one of Europe’s biggest member countries, the United Kingdom, left the world’s biggest trading bloc.

The underlying question is how to prevent the people who decide how much tax payers’ money gets spent on agriculture subsidies, infrastructure projects or regional development aid from channeling that cash into their business interests.

The European Parliament’s spending watchdog, the Budgetary Control Committee, has urged the EU’s executive Commission to “propose a maximum amount of direct payment per natural person, making it impossible to receive subsidies of hundreds of millions of euros” in any one seven-year budget period.

On the eve of Thursday’s extraordinary budget summit, the lawmakers appealed for “guidelines to fight conflicts of interest of high-profile politicians” and they asked the European Council – the institution representing the 27 EU member countries – “to adopt common ethical standards in this regard.”

“It is unacceptable that individual beneficiaries can receive up to three-digit million sums,” Monika Hohlmeier, the chair of the committee, said after lawmakers examined a 2018 EU budget Wednesday. She called “for EU-wide rules to avoid conflicts of interests of high-level politicians and emphasize the need for common ethical standards.”

No leader or country was publicly mentioned by name by the committee, which has no oversight over national budgets or even the budget of the European Council, and whose members prefer to keep a low profile.

Separately, the lawmakers are also concerned that criminal gangs are getting their hands on EU money.

Italian authorities launched a crackdown last month on parts of the Sicilian Mafia working in cahoots with public officials to defraud the EU of more than 10 million euros ($11 million) in agricultural aid. They said mafiosi used violent threats and extortion to seize ownership of lands eligible for EU aid.

But national authorities on their own are virtually powerless to act when it comes to potential conflicts of interest at the EU level. To really combat the problem, the EU’s executive commission would have to work to bolster the rules.

In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, a new wave of protests against Babis is expected next week.

They follow two major rallies last year when a total of more than half a million people demanded that Babis step down, in the biggest such demonstrations in the country since the 1989 anti-Communist Velvet Revolution.

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Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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