A last-minute bid by Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, to protect MEPs against searches by the European Commission's anti-fraud office (OLAF) is threatening to derail a compromise on a revised OLAF regulation agreed in July between the Parliament, the Commission and the member states.
Schulz blocked a vote on the compromise in the lead committee – on budgetary control – last week (26 September) in order to seek ways to strengthen immunity provisions for MEPs, according to several sources. The compromise text, which includes no special clause on MEPs' immunity, was adopted in July by member states' ambassadors to the EU. An official said that inserting an immunity clause now would be “completely unacceptable” to national governments for both substantive and procedural reasons.
The budgetary-control committee is now scheduled to vote on the draft regulation on Monday (8 October), but MEPs said it was not clear what text they would vote on following Schulz's intervention. To date, no draft amendment to the text has been formally introduced or debated in the committee or the plenary, according to Parliament officials. A source suggested that a “terrible quarrel” is raging among MEPs over the immunity question.
Schulz, said his spokesman, had requested a delay of two weeks to make time for consultations with the Parliament's legal service, with Klaus-Heiner Lehne, a centre-right German MEP who chairs the legal-affairs committee, and with Ingeborg Grässle, a centre-right German MEP who negotiated the changes on behalf of Parliament. The spokesman said that Schulz was “worried about grey zones between the OLAF regulation and individual immunity rights of parliamentarians that have not yet been fully eliminated”. “Another round of discussions is necessary before a final vote,” he said.
The main disagreement concerns the right of OLAF officials to search MEPs' offices without their consent in the course of investigations – an issue that arose in the so-called ‘cash for influence' scandal last year.
Until September 2011, OLAF had always sought the consent of MEPs before searching their offices, but in the case of Ernst Strasser, a centre-right Austrian MEP who is under investigation for corruption, no permission was sought. MEPs are anxious to ensure this does not happen again.
Schulz and other MEPs are seeking to insert a clause into the text of the regulation that would declare MEPs' offices – including those of their assistants – to be off-limits to OLAF without the agreement of the MEP in question, in line with advice they received from the Parliament's legal service. The clause, which has never been officially proposed, also specifies that records held by MEPs or their aides cannot be treated as documents of the institution unless they have been officially submitted to parliamentary procedure.
The Commission and the member states argue that MEPs' immunity is relevant only in criminal or civil cases, not in administrative investigations of the kind undertaken by OLAF. A spokeswoman for Algirdas Šemeta, the European commissioner for taxation and customs union, audit and anti-fraud, said: “We would be very disappointed to see this hold up the adoption of what we think is a very important regulation. We would like to see the regulation adopted by the end of this year because it is an important instrument in the EU's fight against fraud.”