A LEADING French MEP has called for an organisation set up to forge closer ties between Scotland and the EU not to be banned.

Nathalie Loiseau made clear she supports new transparency measures being considered by European chiefs in the wake of a major corruption scandal in Brussels linked to football World Cup host Qatar.

The proposals include a prohibition of dozens of "unofficial friendship groups" MEPs have with non EU or "third countries" amid concerns they have been used as a way of exerting improper influence.

Ms Loiseau, a former European minister in the French government, said that under the rules being considered the ban would apply to groups related to countries which already have a formal tie or delegation with the European Parliament. Formal delegations exist with the UK, Canada and the United States.

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However, she said Scotland had no such formal direct link with a European Parliament delegation, and as such the European Friends of Scotland should be exempt from any future ban.

"My personal position is crystal clear. The European Parliament must ensure the highest level of transparency and reliability when it deals with third countries. This is the reason why we have formal delegations for relations with countries or blocks of countries," she told The Herald.

"These formal delegations abide by formal rules, defend the position of the European Parliament and travel officially after a formal decision from the European Parliament.

"There is no reason to maintain informal friendship groups when a formal delegation is set up. This is the reason why the informal UK Friendship Group stopped its existence as soon as the formal delegation for the relations with the UK was established."

She added: "The situation is somewhat different when it comes with relations with non state partners, as it is the case for Scotland. There is no official delegation for the relations with Scotland. To my view, this should allow for an exception, provided that the rules of the friendship groups are clearer and more transparent."

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Ms Loiseau, pictured below speaking to the BBC, is chair of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Security and Defence and chair of European Parliament's Delegation to the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly.

The Herald:

She spoke out after a series of proposals were set out last month by Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, after Belgian police charged four people, including Greek MEP Eva Kaili, following raids at politicians’ homes which uncovered about €1.5millon in cash, allegedly part of a bribery campaign by Doha. 

MEPs from the centre-right, liberal and centre-left groups told the Financial Times last year that they had been approached by Qataris through the Qatar-EU Parliamentary Friendship Group in Brussels. The group co-operates with the Qatari embassy in Brussels. 

Ms Metsola told the EU’s 27 leaders last month that she would overhaul the parliament’s regulations to ensure the chamber was “not for sale to foreign actors that seek to undermine us”.

The European Friends of Scotland is one such "unofficial friendship group".
More than 40 MEPs are members of the group which receives backing from the Scottish Government office based in the Belgium capital.

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According to the Scottish Government's website, its Brussels Office provides a secretariat function to support the running of the group whose members include Ms Loiseau, German MEPs David McAllister and Terry Reintke and Catalan MEPs Carles Puigedmont (the former president of Catalonia) and Clara Ponsati.

The purpose of the group is to promote stronger economic, social and cultural relations between the EU and Scotland; encourage cooperation and understanding in areas such as climate change, international development, the Arctic and the future EU-UK relationship.

It is also committed to maintaining links between MSPs and MEPs.
Other MEPs on the European Friends of Scotland appeared less hopeful.

"We know that some of the unofficial friendship groups have functioned as a platform to whitewash dubious activity, " said Finland's Nils Torvalds.

"While they in many cases have undoubtedly also been beneficial for EU and the third country in question, I am in favour of more transparency and we cannot apply different rules for different friendship groups within the European Parliament.

"Having said that, nothing stops MEPs from having their personal friendship groups also in the future. For our Scottish friends I would also like to say that a resilient democracy within the EU should be in line with the pro-EU sentiments in Scotland."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ministers support President Metsola’s swift response and robust plan of action to root out corruption and protect the standing of the European Parliament.

"The Scottish Government is closely monitoring the situation and will consider any emerging decisions or guidance once this is available. Through the Scottish Government’s International Network work will continue to develop, maintain and enhance relationships with the European Union to ensure Scotland’s interests are represented in Europe.”

A European Parliament spokesman said: "On 15 December, EP President Metsola announced her intention to look into Informal Friendship Groups.

"The same day, the European Parliament has a whole voted a resolution calling for the same objective, with its article 16 mentioning 'that proper regulation and monitoring of friendship groups is a prerequisite for their continued existence in Parliament'

"This topic is part of the larger reforms suggested by President Metsola and discussed with Ep leaders in view increasing transparency, accountability  rapidly in line with the plenary decision.

"No final decision on this reform proposals has been taken at this stage.

"MEPs occasionally form unofficial groups. These 'friendship groups' are not official European Parliament organisations. These groups do not coordinate with the committees and cannot speak on behalf of Parliament."