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For years, they’ve locked horns with EU leaders who accuse them of flouting the rule of law, oppressing minorities, and maintaining unsavory ties with foreign regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s in Russia.
But now, as a corruption scandal engulfs Brussels, ensnaring a senior figure of the center-left, Europe’s far-right leaders feel that the shoe is on the other foot — and they are going on the attack against a pro-EU establishment that they say has presided over massive corruption while lecturing them about how to run their countries.
The upshot is that right-wingers ranging from France’s Marine Le Pen to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish President Andrzej Duda may seek to turn the scandal into a political weapon — as leverage in rule-of-law disputes with Brussels and to whip up anti-EU sentiment ahead of European Parliament elections in 2024.
“They dragged us through the mud over a totally transparent and legal loan from a Czech Russian bank,” National Rally chief Le Pen tweeted, referring to a €9 million loan her party secured in 2014. “At the same time, Qatar was delivering suitcases full of cash to all these corrupt people who are supposedly in the ‘camp of the good.'”
In Hungary, Orbán, who’s locked in an epic struggle with Brussels over rule-of-law failings in his country, mocked the EU in a tweet of his own, writing that the Parliament was “seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary” over a photograph of world leaders doubled over with laughter.
Polish lawmakers from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is also at odds with Brussels over rule-of-law infringements, struck a similar note, pointing out that MEP Eva Kaili, the most prominent suspect in the Qatar corruption case, had been a vocal critic of their country.
“The question arises: Where is the problem with the rule of law? In Poland or in the European Union?” said Dominik Tarczyński, an MEP with the ruling Polish party.
“The European Parliament is not a transparent institution, and support for Socialists like Eva Kaili exposes the values of the European Parliament and ridicules this EU institution,” said Bogdan Rzońca, another PiS lawmaker.
The cries of hypocrisy from the European far-right came as Belgian police carried out further raids on Tuesday, sealing off more offices in the European Parliament.
Four people, including Kaili and her Italian partner, Francesco Giorgi, remain in police custody on charges of corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization. Kaili is set to appear before a Belgian judge on Wednesday.
The EU’s top officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Parliament President Roberta Metsola, have lined up to condemn the finding in stark terms, vowing to crack down on corruption across all of the EU’s institutions, which employ more than 60,000 people across the block.
But for the far-right, which in many countries casts itself as the enemy of “lesson-giving” EU bureaucrats, those words rang hollow as they said the allegations uncovered since last Friday only underscore the double standards of EU elites who are quick to condemn Poland and Hungary but fail to clean up on their own doorstep.
“The European Union loves to give lessons to the entire world. It gives lessons to Hungary. It gives lessons to Poland. It even gives lessons to [European border agency] Frontex. It would do much better to start cleaning its own house,” said Philippe Olivier, a National Rally MEP and close aide to Le Pen.
The probe was likely to draw in further people, including from other political groups in Parliament, and would increase scrutiny on von der Leyen, who is under pressure over the terms of a deal she negotiated with Pfizer to buy COVID-19 vaccines, he added.
Less than two years before EU voters head to the polls to elect a new Parliament, Olivier predicted that the corruption scandal would have a political impact in France, where Le Pen has twice reached the final round of a presidential election, only to be defeated both times by the centrist Emmanuel Macron.
“People already have the feeling that the EU is a giant rule-making machine with no oversight,” he said. “This only adds to the picture, so I’m optimistic.”
Even on the left, some politicians acknowledged that the allegations, which so far concern members of the Socialists and Democrats group in Parliament, would be damaging because they create an equivalence between socialists accused of taking money from Qatar and right-wingers who have taken money from Russia.
Jan Cienski contributed reporting.