An investigation has been launched following claims EU officials were implicated in serious corruption and maladministration, while on a mission in Kosovo designed to help the country fight corruption and crime.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini announced that an investigation into the European Union rule of law mission (Eulex) would be transferred to an independent investigator. Top Eulex officials are alleged to have taken bribes to drop criminal cases.
Tonino Picula, chair of parliament's delegation to Kosovo, said, "Considering that Eulex is the biggest mission of the common foreign and security policy of the European Union, allegations such as this certainly have a direct impact on the perception of Eulex and EU foreign and security policy in general."
He said that the allegations "raise numerous questions about the need to restructure the whole system". Picula called for a "swift and independent probe" to "contain the damage that is already done, but also allow the new mission and its leadership to perform their duty to the best of their ability".
Picula outlined his hope that the European anti-fraud office (Olaf) would be involved and that the ongoing investigation be concluded as soon as possible.
Dubravka Šuica, the first vice-chair of parliament's Kosovo delegation, expressed support for the establishment of an independent inquiry but expressed concern that those involved in the fight against corruption could themselves be compromised.
Šuica said, "This situation is concerning for the European parliament as we have always supported Eulex, despite the fact that Kosovo's citizens were not always in its favour."
She added that the whistleblower Eulex prosecutor Maria Bamieh "who exposed this scandal must be protected at the highest level" and said it "is also alarming that [she] was suspended after reporting a case of corruption […]".
Ulrike Lunacek, vice-chair of parliament's Kosovo delegation also called for a "thorough, timely and transparent" investigation. She raised concerns following a "far from satisfactory" meeting with Eulex officials on Tuesday.
She added, "The failure to investigate these worrying allegations in an open and swift manner will inevitably create the impression of a cover up. To this end, [parliament] has sent a number of questions to EU foreign policy high representative Mogherini and, after receiving answers, we will decide whether we will set up a parliamentary investigative committee."
"The failure to investigate these worrying allegations in an open and swift manner will inevitably create the impression of a cover up"
Lunacek welcomed the appointment of an independent external investigator and highlighted the importance of acting "decisively on any findings of irregularities and corruption because the reputation of the most important EU foreign policy mission, and the credibility of the EU itself, is at stake".
Elmar Brok, chair of the committee on foreign affairs, emphasised "that no-one is above the law and that the fight against corruption is our key priority, both in Kosovo [and] within our own institutions".
Brok said, "It is of utmost importance to urgently shed light on all the allegations of corruption and on the internal investigations that have been carried out in secret." He added that "alleged attempts to cover up also need to be part of these investigations".
Richard Howitt, the S&D spokesperson on foreign affairs and member of the foreign affairs committee, welcomed Mogherini's announcement saying, "The [foreign affairs chief] has listened to the European parliament and in one of her first major decisions in office, has shown herself to be strong, decisive and principled."
Criticising the previous internal investigation as looking like a "cover-up", he said an independent investigation "must now proceed without delay or hindrance". He highlighted that there must "full legal accountability for any EU official found to be responsible for corruption or criminality".
Howitt added that full transparency and an investigation timetable were crucial in restoring credibility in the EU's mission to Kosovo.
James Carver, EFDD member of the foreign affairs committee criticised the fact that external action service (EAS) officials would only speak with the committee in private, with media excluded.
He outlined his belief that Kosovo "is riddled with organised crime, people trafficking, human organ theft, illegal drugs, war crimes, forced prostitution and every kind of lawlessness".
Carter added that he saw the EU's role in Kosovo as being akin to "a colonial power […] on the pretence of establishing the rule of law".
Eulex is part of a wider EU effort to promote peace and stability in the western Balkans. Most of its staff are police officers, judges, prosecutors and customs officials. The annual budget of Eulex is €111m.