Democracy depends on trust and accountability. So if elected politicians accept pay-offs and no action is taken, democracy is in danger. The European Parliament became painfully aware of that two years ago, when three of its members accepted money to act in the interests of journalists posing as lobbyists. The Parliament – led by its then president, Jerzy Buzek – acted quickly: last January, 99% of MEPs voted for a new code of conduct that had been prepared at record speed.
The Austrian courts too have moved fast. Last week they gave Ernst Strasser, an Austrian MEP, a four-year prison sentence (the judgment is not yet in force). The country I know best – Austria – placed the bar where it should be: very high. Other EU member states should do the same.
The EU is often blamed (sometimes rightly) for taking far too long to go from idea to implementation. On this occasion, that charge cannot be levelled at the European Parliament.
But, with one year's experience, can we say that the European Parliament took a small step or made a giant leap when it adopted the new code of conduct?
The advisory committee on the conduct of MEPs presented its first annual report on 15 February. As a member and now chairwoman of the committee, I have been struck by the seriousness, diligence and honesty shown by the vast majority of MEPs.
But there have also been some disappointments. It can be difficult to reconcile 27 different national systems, traditions and experiences with one single set of new rules, no matter what the good will of the institution and individual MEPs.
Still, the code of conduct is a clear advance: we now have detailed declarations of MEPs' financial interests, we now have mandatory reporting on conflicts of interests, and we now have clear penalties.
But we should not stop here. MEPs need to lead by example.
For starters, we have to be much better at showing citizens what is being done. I want an online, public database so that everyone has easy access to MEPs' declarations of financial interests. Work on that has started, so we will get there eventually.
We should also be more forthright with anyone who breaks the rules. It should hurt to do wrong. Our standards should be envied by those in the vanguard of transparency and a deterrent for those of dubious character. We need the highest common denominator, not the lowest.
But a discussion about the code of conduct should not be limited to how and when MEPs' declarations of financial interests are filled in, or how many news articles an MEP was paid for writing during a year.
There needs also to be an unbiased and honest discussion on parliamentary openness and ethics. Ethics cannot be reduced to a mere accounting exercise.
I can see no better opportunity for such a discussion than 2013 – the European Year of Citizens. And we should not forget that we are now in the run-up to the European elections in June 2014. Who will dare campaign on a platform of backtracking on openness and ethics?
Someone once said that “ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do”. The vast majority of MEPs live by that motto. The Parliament's new, clear and unequivocal standards are for those who do not.
Overall, the Parliament's code of conduct is more mature than an ordinary one-year-old. It stands and it walks. It takes small steps in a direction that is both right and irreversible.
Evelyn Regner is an Austrian member of the European Parliament's Socialists and Democrats group, and currently chairs the Parliament's advisory committee on the conduct of members.