09 January 2024

Time to talk about academics’ role in Qatargate

Two years ago, we discussed the problems associated with revolving doors at the European level on this platform. One year ago, Qatargate was on the agenda. This ‘gate’ could not have come at a worse time, because just months prior investigative journalists had exposed Uber’s aggressive lobbying in Europe. The Uberfiles involve an ongoing investigation into former Commissioner Neelie Kroes’ hidden revolving door position with Uber.

Confronted with a slew of ‘gates’ that challenge the legitimacy of EU decision-making and the ethics of its politicians and staff, EU institutions rushed to propose a series of reforms to prevent future scandals. These include European Parliament President Roberta Metsola’s 14-point plan presented in February, the Commission’s proposal for a new EU ethics body in June, and the new draft directive on the transparency of foreign country lobbying in December. Additionally, academic proposals (see also here) have also fed into the debate on the reforms to be undertaken.

We could discuss in detail the causes and consequences of these scandals, what they teach us about the state of European democracy, and the inadequacy of the reforms undertaken. Instead, we have chosen to redirect our focus inward, contemplating the broader scholarly community. We believe this introspective analysis is what EU institutions should have done, rather than hastily shifting to the technicalities of reform proposals. Since we cannot probe the soul of EU institutions, we conduct soul-searching closer to home.

First, we acknowledge that academics share responsibility for perpetuating this seemingly never-ending cycle of new scandals, quick political fixes, and academics and integrity watchdogs shooting down the proposed solutions (deservedly so in many cases), all the while preparing for the imminent restart of the cycle.

Second, we contend that a reboot of scholarship on two fronts is imperative and, if not as crucial as implementing recommended reforms, important nevertheless. On the one hand, there is a need for increased research into aspects such as lobbying, revolving doors, and conflicts of interest. On the other, our lack of ambition in envisioning alternatives to transparency is a shortfall. We have settled for transparency as the default position to safeguard and foster political integrity, but a more imaginative approach may yield better results.

The state of scholarship on law and democracy

Drawing generalisations about the state of scholarship is challenging and somewhat risky, but we are willing to take that risk. With nearly two decades of combined research on lobbying and revolving doors, we dare to assert that the state of scholarship in this realm is uneven.

While there is a considerable amount of research on lobbying and interest group politics, the focus on revolving doors is notably less intense and incomplete: scholars tend to study circulations from the public to the private sector, leaving other types of circulations (private to public, European to national, national or European to international and so on) understudied. Even scarcer attention is given to moonlighting – where political or administrative actors hold two jobs simultaneously – and conflicts of interest more broadly. Furthermore, questions related to the regulation of these three activities remain underexplored.

Why focus on these three activities in particular? The importance of these activities becomes evident when considering the most recent ‘gate’, Qatargate. It is a corruption scandal, but lobbying, revolving doors, and moonlighting have all been brought to the fore, prompting the EU to attempt tightening the rules governing them. Unlike corruption, which is defined and punished by criminal law, the three activities operate in an area where the boundary between necessary and unwanted, desirable and avoidable, legal and illegal is vague, contextual and often drawn on a case-by-case basis, underlining the need for research.

However, not only is there a scarcity of research, but the existing research is also fragmented along disciplinary lines. Political scientists often conduct research on lobbying, revolving doors and other similar matters, leaving legal scholars underrepresented in these domains. This division hampers the exploration of crucial aspects such as regulation, institutional design, and the independence of monitoring authorities.

The academic research on law and democracy also conveniently piggybacks on the work done by NGOs. For example, transparency organisations diligently scrutinise lobbying registrations, gather information on dubious entries, and submit their findings to the Transparency Register Secretariat, as reported in the 2022 Annual Report. Transparency organisations also sift through MEPs’ financial declarations and monitor Commissioners’ post-mandate jobs.

Academics often criticise the public sector for neglecting its regulatory duties and outsourcing transparency implementation tasks to NGOs. It is true that, at times, it seems the public sector has forgotten that transparency demands material resources such as staff, and the availability of dedicated staff ultimately depends on public finances managed by the public sector.

While EU institutions should acknowledge that transparency is not a low-cost policy option, calculate its real costs, and be prepared to foot the bill, scholars of law and democracy should also play their part by contributing to research on the implementation of transparency measures – an area where transparency organisations have often toiled away, undisturbed.

Beyond transparency

Two years ago, we expressed caution about the potential impact of the proposed EU ethics body. After numerous discussions, the Commission released on 8 June 2023 a proposal for an inter-institutional ethics body. The proposal seems to place an excessive reliance on transparency obligations to establish a virtuous circle and bring about transformative practices. In a political landscape where public regulators, corporations, and lobbyists are intricately connected, mere “transparency” about influence and lobbying activities is insufficient. We reiterate our cautious stance.

The problem lies deeper. Over the past two decades, “transparency” has emerged as the primary tool in upholding public integrity. Lobbyists are urged to voluntarily register on the Transparency Register, and Commissioners, their Cabinet Members, and post-Qatargate MEPs are obligated to maintain meeting diaries. These measures depend on the belief that transparency will create a robust incentive for initiating positive dynamics and altering the behaviour of all actors in the European decision-making process, whether public or private.

While acknowledging the democratic value of transparency, particularly in allowing NGOs, journalists, and researchers to scrutinise EU institutions and hold them accountable, its transformative potential in the realm of public ethics has been overly emphasised and too closely associated with the work conducted by NGOs in elucidating the findings of transparency. This may partly stem from a misguided belief in full or “fishbowl” transparency. Merely dumping data and declaring “look here!” is not practical. Transparency needs to be made meaningful and relevant to the public, and as highlighted above, it does not come cheap.

As a policy instrument, transparency is also tricky, because it easily becomes an end in itself rather than a means to achieve integrity. This can lead to situations where we aim at transparency for the sake of transparency. Obsession with transparency may also lead individuals or organisations to prioritise managing their public image rather than addressing underlying issues that necessitated greater transparency in the first place.

Transparency has become a convenient solution for academics, including ourselves. The disciplinary fragmentation of research also contributes to the poverty of the solutions proposed, and the difficulty of moving away from transparency as an incentive to public ethics. In our writings and public commentaries, we have often recommended transparency.

As noted by the dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken, a similar tendency exists in the US, where scholarship does not “try to ensure that every American gets a lobbyist. Lobbying reform, then, focuses almost entirely on questions of disclosure and transparency”. There has been little interest in engaging with broader distributional and equality issues associated with lobbying and revolving doors. It is essential for us to question and explore these dimensions beyond the transparency paradigm.


It may seem a bit exaggerated to contend that academics play an enabling role and are complicit in the various issues currently afflicting EU institutions. Undoubtedly, the primary responsibility for effecting change and preventing future Dalligates, Uberfiles and Qatargates lies with the EU institutions themselves. However, if academics only spring into action with recommendations when a new scandal of public integrity erupts, we inadvertently contribute to a form of research that Alexander Somek calls the “committed followership” research. Such research is triggered by a court case, something it eagerly awaits, much like the anticipation we all feel when waiting for the release of a new iPhone.

Public integrity and democracy, though not always the most glamorous topics beyond their solemn exterior, demand sustained attention both from political scientists and legal scholars. While there may be few court cases and legislative texts, along with limited forums for discussing evergreen EU topics like direct effect and primacy or integration theories, it is hypocritical for us to criticise EU institutions for not taking our recommendations seriously if we fail to maintain a research interest in lobbying, revolving doors, conflicts of interest, and similar matters beyond the immediate waves of scandals.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Avril, Lola; Korkea-aho, Emilia: Time to talk about academics’ role in Qatargate, VerfBlog, 2024/1/09, https://verfassungsblog.de/time-to-talk-about-academics-role-in-qatargate/, DOI: 10.59704/90f3509673e8577f.

Leave A Comment


1. We welcome your comments but you do so as our guest. Please note that we will exercise our property rights to make sure that Verfassungsblog remains a safe and attractive place for everyone. Your comment will not appear immediately but will be moderated by us. Just as with posts, we make a choice. That means not all submitted comments will be published.

2. We expect comments to be matter-of-fact, on-topic and free of sarcasm, innuendo and ad personam arguments.

3. Racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory comments will not be published.

4. Comments under pseudonym are allowed but a valid email address is obligatory. The use of more than one pseudonym is not allowed.

Explore posts related to this:
Qatargate, Ubergate, academy, policy making

Other posts about this region: