By: Gal Kovač (Nova24tv)
European politics has recently been shocked by the Qatargate corruption scandal, in which large amounts of money were discovered in possession of a Greek socialist MEP, a party colleague of Tanja Fajon. The money allegedly originated from the Qatari authorities. The eyes of the critical public have now turned to other MEPs as well. Two Slovenian names have also come to light in the course of investigations into undeclared trips abroad. Ljudmila Novak, who failed to register her trip to Israel, and Franc Bogovič, who, following his trip to undemocratic Azerbaijan, has changed his rhetoric considerably, according to foreign media reports.
Ljudmila Novak, an MEP from the New Slovenia party (Nova Slovenija – NSi), told the media that her trip to Israel was not related to her parliamentary work and did not address the question of whether and how her travels were financed. Bogovič, on the other hand, made a statement contradictory to that of the Azerbaijani ambassador to the EU.
It was the Belgian Le Soir that reported on Novak because of her trip to the Holy Land. The trip was attended by 11 elected MEPs. Only five of them reported the trip to the relevant authorities. Among those who “forgot” to do so was the Christian Democrat Ljudmila Novak, alongside the Estonian Andrus Ansip of the liberal group (RENEW), the Bulgarian Elena Yoncheva of the Socialists and Social Democrats, and Novak’s party colleague from the European People’s Party, the Swede David Lege. The list of “forgetful MEPs” also includes Spaniards Juan Ignacio Zoido and Isabele Benjumea.
Ljudmila Novak responded to journalists’ questions from the dominant media by saying that her trip to Israel was not related to her parliamentary work. In the picture published in several media outlets, she is seen in front of a tunnel dug by the terrorist organisation Hezbollah, and Novak is being briefed on its activities by a member of the Israeli army.
In November, the Israeli army tweeted, “Today, 20 members of the European Parliament and their advisors visited northern Israel. The visitors entered a Hezbollah terrorist tunnel to see first-hand the threat Israelis face as Hezbollah continues to promote terrorism and instability. Thank you, ELNET, for organising this event.” To clarify, ELNET is an organisation which, according to its own explanation, works to “strengthen relations between Europe and Israel on the basis of shared democratic values and strategic interests.” ELNET (European Leadership Network) is one of the three organisations that organise such trips (along with the AJC – American Jewish Committee Transatlantic Institute and B’nai B’rith) and, as the media outlet Le Soir reports, usually provides guests with a plane ticket and a stay in a luxury hotel.
In response to the Delo newspaper’s enquiries, Novak said: “The visits were not related to my reports to the European Parliament, nor to documents received by the European Parliament. They were for information purposes or as a principled support for Holocaust awareness and efforts for world peace.” She did not reply to Delo’s enquiry as to whether the organisers of the trip had paid for her accommodation and travel expenses. She was visiting Israel as part of an official parliamentary delegation with the Knesset (the Israeli parliament). As part of the trip, the visitors went to the Golan Heights, Gaza and Tel Aviv, Delo reports.
Unlike Novak, MEP Romana Tomc duly registered the trip as well as the financial structure. Hotel accommodation was covered by B’nai B’rith, while she financed the trip herself.
Bogovič travelled to Azerbaijan
Some time ago, MEP Franc Bogovič was involved in a similar affair – he had previously been critical of the authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan, which, according to the Freedom House (an American NGO funded largely by the US government), is considered to be one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, ruled by Ilham Aliyev and his extended family. Bogovič has significantly changed his rhetoric and opinion on the regime since his visit, according to both the Swedish Blankspot and the Belgian Le Soir. A similar trend was observed with the German liberal MEP Engin Erogel, who also took part in the trip to the undemocratic republic.
Bogovič, like the other MEPs, was invited to the trip by the EU-Azerbaijan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee of the Parliament of Azerbaijan. According to the EU’s Observer, quoting the Azerbaijani Ambassador to the EU, the trip was not funded by the undemocratic regime, but this claim was later, according to the same media outlet, questioned by the MEPs themselves who took part in the trip. Bogovič (who missed the legal deadline to register) announced that his three nights in a hotel in Baku were paid for by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. Contrary to EU Observer’s claims, Bogovič claims that he went on the trip as a representative of the parliamentary group for rural regions and smart villages. He visited one of the smart villages there, and the programme included a visit to Baku, the Carpet Museum and a cultural programme with the possibility of visiting a wine cellar.
The Social Democrats still on top
By far the biggest corruption scandal among Slovenian MEPs was committed by the Social Democrats’ Zoran Thaler, who admitted to receiving bribes by accepting a promise of financial compensation in exchange for tabling amendments to European legislation. He was caught in the act by investigative journalists from the Sunday Times in England.
After pleading guilty, Thaler was sentenced by Slovenian courts in 2014 to two and a half years’ “weekend” imprisonment, a financial penalty of just over 32,000 euros, and a ban on holding public office.