Labour issues

In the Glass Palace – Abuse of Power and Sexual Harassment in the EU Parliament

Just weeks before the EU elections, a contentious issue is forcing its way onto the agenda behind the scenes at the European Parliament. Sexual assault and bullying within Parliament itself. Several dozen women and men have reported cases of unwanted touching, emotional abuse and physical violence to CORRECTIV and the German newspaper Stern—mostly by MEPs.

von Annika Joeres , Gabriela Keller

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Particularly for young women starting their careers, the EU parliament can be a frightening place. Time and again, female employees say they are fearful of getting into the elevators. Illustration: Christina S. Zhu

It’s late and the party is already over. Sophie Lehnert’s head is spinning, she can hardly believe it all, the opulent food, the music, the MEPs, assistants, advisers – and she herself right in the middle of it all. Then the assault takes places which catches Lehnert completely off guard. What began as a lavish evening has turned into a case file a few months later.

Looking back on the event today, she says: “I had no idea what it would be like to have something like that happen to you. I always thought there would be something you could do to defend yourself.“

Sophie Lehnert isn’t her real name. She was in her early 20s at the time and an intern with a parliamentary group in the EU Parliament in Brussels. The details of what happened that night cannot be disclosed because Lehnert does not want to be recognised. If her allegations are confirmed, hers could be considered a case of sexual assault. The alleged perpetrator? The personal assistant of a German MEP.

‘It’s like someone takes away a bit of your dignity’

About a year has passed since the alleged assault. How does she feel today? Somewhat okay. Somewhat nervous. Somewhat insecure. There are still moments when she doubts herself: Did she encourage the man? Was she maybe too flirty, too naive, too playful at the party?

It is already past midnight when the assault happens. The party has officially ended, the crowd has dispersed and Lehnert is suddenly alone with her colleague. Lehnert says that he groped her everywhere, even in the most intimate places, and that this went on for quite some time. She can’t say exactly how long, only that at some point the man let go of her. She says: ‘it’s like someone takes away a bit of your dignity.’

Nobody knows how many cases there are like Sophie Lehnert’s. Sexual assault and violations of personal boundaries in the EU Parliament are not recorded in any official statistics. However, there are indications that such offences happen quite frequently. If you ask around among EU employees, they name politicians who should be avoided – the same, sometimes very prominent names, come up again and again.

A culture characterised by abuse of power and impunity

Anger and indignation are simmering at the European Parliament. With the European elections just around the corner, issues such as immigration, the economy and climate protection are being fiercely debated. But behind the scenes a completely different problem is forcing its way onto the agenda: sexual harassment within the institution.

New allegations keep emerging, and not only of sexual harassment. Bullying also appears to be widespread and often goes without consequences for its perpetrators. Assistants, observers and employee representatives speak of a culture that is partly characterised by abuse of power and impunity.

The MeToo EP initiative published a survey in March in which more than 1,100 employees took part, two thirds of them female. Almost 50% indicate they had experienced bullying and around 15% sexual harassment. Just under 7% had experienced physical violence. This all occurred at their workplace, the EU Parliament – the very place where laws are made that are supposed to protect all European citizens from abuse in the workplace and from sexual violence.

Parliament is a house of fear for some

CORRECTIV and Stern have spent weeks investigating the EU Parliament and other EU institutions and came across a total of eleven cases of sexual assault and harassment – as well as 15 cases of psychological abuse. Prominent Christian Democrats throwing ring binders and shouting at employees; parliamentary staff leering at young women in meetings and later sending them photos they have taken of them; high-ranking civil servants who have been sentenced for rape – and whose conviction has been hushed up. Some of the incidents have already been reported on in the press, but many have not yet been publicised.

Our analysis of documents, emails, reports and dozens of conversations with victims, politicians, lawyers, assistants and staff representatives paints an alarming picture. Some male employees reported serious bullying and sexual assault in the workplace, but it seems that the EU Parliament can be above all a frightening place for young women.

Even when employees report harassment or file complaints, allegations are often not investigated or sanctioned. Victims, experts and insiders say that parliamentarians are surrounded by a protective cocoon of power and status. In many cases, the victims of the abuse have no choice but to resign and disappear.

‘There are MEPs here where we warn each other – if you’re wearing a skirt, don’t go near him,’ says the female assistant to one German MEP.

‘The victims are afraid of losing their jobs because the MEPs can use their influence to destroy their careers,’ says another young female employee.

The fear of sharing an elevator

Work and private life often mix if you work at the European Parliament, and boundaries can seem blurred. Women starting out in their careers in particular often find themselves in awkward situations. A former MEP’s assistant tells us how young women are asked by MEPs to collect ‘at least 20’ business cards from other MEPs and influential people at evening receptions. They do what is expected of them and risk falling into a trap: While they try to network, they might end up running into unrestrained MEPs considering them fair game. And time and again we heard from female employees who say they are fearful of getting into elevators.

When you enter the EU Parliament in Strasbourg, you step into a different world with a rigid class system. Silent ushers with heavy silver chains stand in front of plenary rooms, and there are bars with “Fast Lanes“ reserved for Members of Parliament. Jobs and internships are highly sought after, and many people accept the stress, pressure, and often a harsh tone in the office as part of the deal. Sexual harassment and violent bullying can apparently be part of the package as well.

The centre of democracy – without separation of powers

As our investigation shows, the EU, the centre of Europe’s democracy, where hundreds of directives, decisions, and regulations are passed each year, is showing signs of striking democratic deficits itself. National labour laws do not apply within EU institutions; instead, the EU’s staff regulations are in place. This means that the EU institutions craft their own rules, implement them themselves, and monitor them themselves. Instead of transparency, there is often organised silence.

Even high-ranking EU politicians acknowledge the problem: “When a Commissioner is supervised by another Commissioner or a Member of Parliament by other Members of Parliament, there is a high risk that `one turns a blind eye,’” says Katarina Barley, the German SPD’s lead candidate for the EU elections and Vice-President of the European Parliament.

The EU Parliament rejects allegations of administrative shortcomings regarding the issue. A spokesperson told CORRECTIV that “respect of human dignity and equality” are the “cornerstone“ of the institution, and wrote: “The Parliament demonstrates zero tolerance towards harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour.”

This, she added, was also reflected in the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure and Code of Conduct, which all Members of Parliament must sign. Additionally, the spokesman referred to a strengthening of the parliament’s procedures to better prevent harassment in 2023. For instance, a mediation service had been established to help Members of Parliament and their staff “resolve difficult working relationships.”

Unrest among the Greens

However, unrest is currently brewing in many parliamentary groups. According to internal sources, the Greens were temporarily struggling to keep up with the complaints of harassment: According to CORRECTIV’s and Stern’s investigation, there are at least five cases within the parliamentary group. Since Stern revealed the case of Malte Gallée in March, the party has been in turmoil: Around a dozen female employees and interns accused the former Green MEP and rising star of sexually harassment. Gallée denied the allegations, telling Stern that these incidents did not happen „in his world“. He subsequently resigned.

Even the Green frontrunner Terry Reintke has come under fire: She has been accused of ignoring warnings for months. Reintke, of all people, who in 2017 coined the hashtag #MeTooEU, and was one of the first women in the EU Parliament to speak openly about her own experiences. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk regarding harassment, she said, “this culture of silence must be broken.”

Now, however, she seems to have looked the other was. Many victims felt abandoned. For Reintke, this is a sensitive issue, particularly now during the EU election campaign.

A sensitive issue for the “Only Yes Means Yes” Party

Terry Reintke declined a request for an interview via a press spokeswoman, stating that an interview “could not be scheduled” as she was “fully engaged in the election campaign” and “preparing for negotiations over the upcoming legislative term.”

On the one hand, this casts a questionable light on the party, which presents itself as a champion of women’s rights and with political slogans like “Only Yes Means Yes.” On the other hand, the parliamentary group is, at least now, evidently making efforts to address violations and complaints thoroughly and sincerely. Their awareness of the problem appears more acute than in other parties, which another reason why so many cases are now coming to light in their ranks.

In response to inquiries from CORRECTIV and Stern, the Greens say that it is their “shared goal to ensure that the parliamentary group is a safe and trusted workplace.” They took reports of harassment and “inappropriate behaviour” very seriously, they said, but declined to comment on internal procedures, citing reasons of “confidentiality and the protection of potential victims.”

A new „task force“ and „external evaluation” intended to remedy the situation

The Greens are the only parliamentary group with their own procedures in place for dealing with complaints of harassment. This spring, they had implemented “additional measures,” such as a “task force” and an “external evaluation” of internal processes, according to the group’s press office.

The issue is not new. In 2017, during the MeToo movement, women in the EU Parliament also spoke out. Media reports highlighted incidents of female staff and interns being groped, harassed, and humiliated. The issue made headlines before fading away again. Since then, little has changed.

Special rules often seem to apply in Strasbourg and Brussels. Party and politics merge, alcohol flows and sometimes, there are scenes like on a school trip for 50-year-olds. The festivities themselves are not necessarily a problem. Elected and taxpayer-funded MEPs behaving as if rules don’t apply to them are.

When a photo of a condom on the floor of the Parliament’s canteen circulated on X during the week of plenary sessions in Strasbourg at the end of April, a Commission employee tweeted: ‘What happens in the EP stays in the EP.’

A diary full of stories of harassment

But this is no longer entirely true; nowadays, abusive people in power cannot rely on the silence of their victims. Slowly, things are starting to change. At the EP, this is partly because of a former employee named Jeanne Ponté.

Ponté has been active on the issue since 2017 and is perhaps the most well-known campaigner against sexual violence and harassment in Brussels. She was the one who founded the grassroots group MeToo EP with a few fellow campaigners. At the time, she kept a notebook with all the lewd and sexist remarks and harassment cases she heard of in the EU Parliament, making headlines across Europe. She has now revealed to CORRECTIV and Stern that it was an incident with a German CDU MEP which inspired her fight against sexual harassment.

In 2014, at the age of just 24, she started work as an assistant to a French MEP, a trade unionist. A “wonderful guy“, she says, with whom she is still in contact today – but Ponté could not believe how other MEPs and civil servants treated interns and employees.

“The whole of Brussels has got used to harassment“

It is one of her first days at work, and she goes to an evening reception organised by the powerful energy industry, right in front of the Parliament on Place de Luxembourg. An older man, almost three times her age, stares at her. He follows her, looking at her “like a piece of meat“. She felt very “ashamed“, she says today. As she is about to leave, the man – a German Christian Democrat – blocks the doorway, puts his hands on her waist and asks if she is new and would like to make his acquaintance.

Ponté wriggles out of his grasp, goes home and tells her colleagues about the unpleasant incident at work the next morning. Their reaction, she says today, left her ‘even more disturbed’ than the incident itself. Her colleagues were neither surprised nor alarmed. “It’s as if the whole of Brussels has got used to harassment,” says Ponté.

A house of cards with the EU ring of stars falling down
The EU, the centre of Europe’s democracy, is showing signs of striking democratic deficits itself. Instead of transparency and accountability, there is often organised silence. Illustration: Christina S. Zhu

She now works for the Commission and has a young child. At lunch, a few stops away from the Brussels Parliament, she talks openly. The MEP who had touched her that evening was a trusted confidant of Angela Merkel’s. She told us his name – he is now retired. A former parliamentary colleague of the man apparently also remembers that politician making lewd remarks on another occasion. He did not respond to our questions.

Everyone is afraid of powerful bosses

There were other incidents; Jeanne Ponté has not forgotten anything, certainly not the parliamentary employee who sent her an email with a series of photos of herself, with the subject: “At the back of the room“ The man had apparently stalked her and secretly photographed her in parliament, over and over again. Female employees were warned about him and his penchant for upskirting women while they climbed the stairs. “I don’t want us to get accustomed to incidents like this,” says Ponté.

When the conversation ends, she promises to speak to the women from her diary: They should finally tell their stories publicly themselves. Weeks pass, but no one comes forward. Apparently, even today, those affected don’t dare incriminate their powerful bosses.

Problematic civil servants are rarely sanctioned, Ponté says. At most, they are transferred somewhere else. Sometimes care is taken to ensure that certain officials simply aren’t surrounded by female interns. These men have nothing to fear: “The Brussels Parliament is a place with a lot of power. Those who can’t handle it quickly become little authoritarian kings.”

Risk of retaliation for submitting complaints

However, it is not just about power abuse but also the principle of equality. If young women do not feel safe in the European Parliament, it touches upon the very foundations of European democracy.

Harassment proceedings often end with the victims disappearing, says Brussels lawyer Nathalie de Montigny, who represents several women who were affected. “I would rather suggest victims of harassment leaving institutions to protect themselves than having to endure very long-lasting procedures,” she says. The victims would not only have to face the perpetrators, who were often reluctant to recognise their misconduct, but also the administration, which was often reluctant to admit at least weaknesses in the personell management. “And, potentially, they take the risk of suffering from retaliation without any assistance.”

If you ask at the EU Parliament itself, there do not seem to be any problems in the institution. A spokeswomen did not respond to questions about specific incidents, but instead told CORRECTIV and Stern about committees that deal with complaints, anti-harassment workshops for MEPs and a ‘network of trained counsellors.’

However, many female employees do not dare to contact the official structures – or they don’t even know they exist. Instead, some have organised their own support networks. A new generation has has emerged which is no longer prepared to accept sexism and harassment in the workplace, as the story of Sophie Lehnert, the former intern who reported sexual assault, shows.

Networking and the dream of a career in Brussels

Sophie Lehnert is now walking through Brussels again. Her internship is long over, but today she has returned for an important event. A new network has been formed to offer those affected a place to go. The group is called the Harassment Support Network. The initiative will be launched later, which is why Lehnert is here – she wants things to change.

Just before the launch of the new initiative she is sitting in a bistro, thinking back to the evening she was assaulted. Actually, she says, that evening was a highlight for her. Her dreams suddenly seemed within her grasp: belonging, being part of the political bubble in Brussels, perhaps the chance of a job later on. “I did my best to network,” she says, “I was advised to get to know different colleagues.”

She vaguely knew the employee who she said would harass her They had spoken briefly, on the way to parliamentary group meetings for instance. That’s why initially she didn’t think anything of it when, at the end of the evening, it was just the two of them. Where exactly that was and how it came about cannot be made public. But this much she can say: “He kept touching me, on my thigh, then my bottom and then he tried to get under my T-shirt,” she says. “I was paralysed and in a state of shock.”

CORRECTIV and Stern have a written statement from the young woman, as well as information about the official proceedings of her case. There are no witnesses. But a friend confirms that Lehnert described the events in exactly the same way to her friends in a group call the morning after: “She said she didn’t know what to make of it at all,” confirms the friend: “She asked us: was that a bad thing to happen?”

This is often the problem with allegations of sexual assault: There is usually a lack of solid evidence. What can be done is to check whether the accounts are coherent, whether there are any contradictions and whether the alleged victim has portrayed the events consistently from the outset.

Just a few hours after the assault, Lehnert was on her way back to parliament; she bumped into the alleged perpetrator in the cafeteria. “He acted as if nothing had happened.”

Fear of being seen as the one who flings dirt

In the days that followed, that night haunted Lehnert. She would suddenly burst into tears at home. She spoke to a confidential advisor, who sent her to a woman in HR. The reactions, she said, appeared hesitant and vague, and it seemed to her that the fault was not only being sought with her colleague, but also with her.

The people she spoke to were sympathetic, she says, but no one gave her a clear course of action, and no one pointed out to her that she could possibly press criminal charges. “What if I wanted to work in parliament later on? I was afraid of being seen as someone flinging dirt,” she says. The woman in the administration didn’t allay her fears. To Lehnert’s dismay she simply said that yes, she was sorry, but that was still the way things were in our society.

So, an intern reported a sexual assault, allegedly committed by the employee of a popular MEP. And nobody appeared to be alarmed.

One of the volunteers from the Harassment Support Network gave her a concrete term for what had happened to her: a violent assault. Lehnert recently made a new attempt to follow up the incident, filing an official complaint and writing a witness statement. She is now waiting for a response.

Victims feel obliged to remain silent

Lehnert wants justice. And she is glad that her case is now being investigated. But the internal proceedings come at a price: her silence. That is why she must remain anonymous – she believes that speaking out publicly could jeopardise the investigation.

When asked by CORRECTIV and Stern, the accused assistant and the MEP in whose office he works wrote that they were not aware of any allegations of harassment.

The number of cases shows that those responsible both in Parliament and at the Commission in Brussels, the figureheads of European politics, have apparently turned a blind eye to the way employees and colleagues are supposed to be treated for many years.

MEPs become employers practically from one day to the next. Leadership skills, empathy and team spirit are not qualities that everybody has by nature. Although they have long been able get basic training on how to spot and prevent bullying and harassment, until recently this was optional. In the training workshops, unadorned slides contain the following information are shown: It is inappropriate to shout at and threaten colleagues, to ignore them or to overwhelm them with impossible tasks. If this happens more frequently, it is bullying. Anyone who physically harasses, touches or throws objects at another person is committing a criminal offence.

Cases also piling up at the Commission and other EU institutions

It’s not just the Parliament where harassment appears to be rampant. CORRECTIV and Stern have also spoken to employees in other EU institutions. The same phrases keep coming up: High-ranking harassers and rapists are systematically protected, says an insider at the Commission. The Commission, with over 30,000 civil servants, is an even larger apparatus than the Parliament.

The Commission is referred to as European government and supposed to monitor countries’ compliance with European laws. However, the rules to protect its own employees often seem to be ignored.

CORRECTIV and Stern have analysed the annual reports of the disciplinary office IDOC, which can be contacted by anyone who has experienced or observed corrupt, violent or abusive behaviour in the Commission or the associated administrations. A few cases of sexual harassment and bullying are reported to the IDOC every year – and the perpetrators are almost never sanctioned. Those that are, tend to be employees in the lower hierarchical levels, such as those on temporary contracts.

Links to reports on abuse disappear suddenly

The 2021 annual report is a good example: 24 suspected cases of sexual and emotional violence were reported, and the perpetrator was only reprimanded in one case – it was someone who had already left the Commission. High-ranking harassers and rapists are systematically protected, says the female official.

Once, one of her colleagues dared to draw attention to the issue. When allegations of rape against a leading Commission official were made public in 2019, she posted media reports about the court case on the intranet: Margus Rahuoja, Estonian Director in the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, was tried for having raped one of his employees – a 26-year-old French woman – during a company party to celebrate the birth of his daughter. But suddenly the links disappeared from the intranet.

Rahuoja denied the allegations. The final verdict came in 2022 , the crime happened in 2015. Over the seven years, Rahuoja continued to receive his usual salary, which, according to the French daily Libération, was around €15,000 per month. This equals a total of €1.5 million that he is not expected to have to pay back. The case did not even appear in the IDOC reports at the time.

The EU Commission denies the accusation that it does not take sufficient action against sexual harassment or support victims enough. The number of reported cases was still very low, it states in response to CORRECTIV’s query, which simply proved, ‘that the Commission offers a safe and respectful working environment.’ In addition, the commission wrote, new procedures and places to go for help and information had been in place since 2023, putting victim support at the centre.

Trade unionist speaks of threats of dismissal

It seems that the internal structures of other EU institutions are also often failing to prevent bullying and harassment. Carlos Bowles is Vice-President of the IPSO trade union, which primarily represents employees of the European Central Bank. He speaks of a ‘concentration and confusion of power’, that means: power is built up, and, at the same time it is often unclear who is responsible when problems come up. “That is the background of all international organisations: The national law does not apply to us, even not the German law even though we are based in Frankfurt,” he says. The result? The employer decides what rights their employees have.

Bowles is a trade unionist who does not shy away from confrontation. CORRECTIV and Stern contacted almost ten representatives of trade unions for EU employees and almost none of them responded. Bowles is taking a risk. On several occasions, he says, ECB managers have threatened him because he spoke to journalists. “Sometimes, it is said: Let’s solve our problems internally. Otherwise people might lose trust in the ECB. And then they go and vote for right wing parties.’”

A spokeswoman of the ECB said that there was no known case of “an alleged threat of dismissal to an employee representative.“

Quite often, employees affected by harassment turn to the trade union. Bowles says he mainly hears about bullying and psychological abuse. Also, he continued, some cases related to unwanted touching, sexual allusions and obscene jokes. Many employees do not report their cases to the official authorities for fear of even more harassment, a negative impact on their career, humiliating rumours or even losing their job. A survey of 2023 employees also seems to confirm this: four out of five said they did not trust those responsible in HR. “If you go to human resources, nothing happens in most cases,” says Bowles. “That’s where the mistrust comes from.”

The ECB points to its “zero-tolerance policy”

But Bowles the trade unionist can often do very little if victims are too afraid to officially report harassment. He sounds angry, saying: “We are locked in an ivory tower where people don’t dare to speak out.”

When asked by CORRECTIV, the ECB spokeswoman said: “Inappropriate behaviour of any kind is unacceptable and goes against our values at the ECB.” The ECB had a “zero-tolerance policy” regarding such matters and all cases were investigated, she claimed. No one should have to suffer negative consequences if they reported problems. “It can be difficult to speak openly, so we offer our employees various ways to report problems, including an anonymous whistleblowing tool.”

Most institutions do have designated people and systems to deal with complaints of harassment. But these systems regularly fail, as the lawyer Nathalie de Montigny confirms. Very often, she says, the people in charge do not step in, even when there are strong indications of harassment. “In political institutions, superiors to whom the victim has confided do not intervene to avoid conflict and prefer to reply they cannot act based on rumors.” The only possibility was in many cases for the victims to lodge official complaints, “but for some this can put an end to their career because their contract is linked to their harasser.”

“There’s no need to shout it from the rooftops”

Many obstacles lie in the way of victims: the power imbalance, the institutions’ inertia. Plus the pressure within parliamentary groups to close ranks. Following the Gallée investigation in Stern, members of the Green Party discussed in heated online chats whether the Stern had been used by political rivals to damage the party’s reputation, as Stern and CORRECTIV were told by insiders.

Still, staff members are expected to stay silent, says an assistant from another parliamentary group: “We are told on our first day at work that we have to protect the reputation of parliament. Many of us always have that in the back of our minds.” An MEP once had said with regards to allegations of harassment: “There’s no need to shout about it from the rooftops, it damages the House.”

It is true that a lot of rumours are constantly circulating in Brussels. Not all of the hints CORRECTIV and Stern received could be confirmed. And indeed, accusations are sometimes used as a political weapons. When the scandal surrounding Gallée escalated, 14 MEPs from the CDU/CSU group wrote a letter to the head of the Green parliamentary group saying “these allegations must be dealt with transparently,“ in order to “avoid creating the impression that such behaviour is being covered up or even tolerated.“

Bizarrely, CDU MEP Karolin Braunsberger-Reinhold also signed the letter. Only a year earlier, she herself had been at the centre of a harassment affair. But more on that later.

Identity of harassers is an open secret

Some prominent parliamentarians have been able to harass their employees unchallenged for many years, it seems. There is Elmar Brok, for example, a CDU veteran and formerly member of the European Parliament for almost 40 years. Officially he is retired, but he still spends a lot of time there. For a long time, he decided on how the conservative parliamentary group should vote and thus on laws in Brussels. He now works for a PR agency that advises the German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall and McDonalds. A powerful man.

Brok is not accused of sexual harassment, but he is said to have yelled at employees in his office and thrown objects at them, such as a bunch of keys or a folder. According to several witnesses, Brok sometimes got into rages that could leave them terrified, even when listening from the safety of a few offices away. CORRECTIV and Stern have evidence that Brok shouted at an employee for several minutes straight.

He even allegedly patronised female heads of state, according to one high-ranking EU representative. An employee in Parliament says that on one occasion she even had to call the security services. Everyone had known how Brok was terrorising his staff, but his parliamentary group had stood by and done nothing. This has not been reported on in the press either. “I pointed it out to several journalists at the time,” says one of the witnesses, “but they all replied, ‘that’s not a story, everyone knows that.’”

Brok did not give a clear answer to CORRECTIV’s inquiries. He stated only that there were “many nice and some less nice stories about me in Brussels, that are made up or simply false“. He does not specify what exactly might be false. Rather, he refers to his office in Bielefeld, where the same two employees had been working for over forty years, he writes – so he “probably hasn’t done everything wrong.“

There is another frequently mentioned case of a CDU MEP, one who still holds his mandate and is also an influential figure. Several high-ranking female politicians and staff members say that he behaves inappropriately towards many women: staring at them in the lift, winking at them and smiling suggestively. Several employees said this makes them uncomfortable. This example shows how blurred the boundaries can be: in another context, this might be dismissed as clumsy advances. However, with the dependency and power imbalance in such a workplace, the persistent flirtation becomes a problem. A political colleague says that complaints have already been filed against this man. However, yet again nothing has changed.

The Brussels press doesn’t work properly, according to Satirist Sonneborn

Back to Elmar Brok. Martin Sonneborn, satirist and independent MEP, also felt the consequences of crossing Brok. When Brok fell asleep on a podium stage Sonneborn posted a photo of the scene online. Brok then confronted him; that moment has even been caught on video. The recording shows Brok planting himself threateningly closely in front of Sonneborn, wagging his finger at him.

In his books and performances, Sonneborn openly addresses the abuse of power and conflicts of interest in Parliament. “The impression that in Brussels problems are not dealt with but swept under the carpet is correct,” he says.

A recent investigation by the investigative platform Follow the Money revealed that one in four EU officials has committed a violation or a crime. In absolute numbers, out of 704 MEPs, 163 individuals have been involved in corruption, fraud, embezzlement, bullying, or sexual harassment.

A machine made of hierarchies and loyalties

According to Sonneborn, the media also often fails to question malpractices. He mentions press conferences where journalists were booed by colleagues for asking critical questions. “The fourth estate is no longer working properly,” he says.

Some journalists feel dependent on politicians. There is concern among some that unfavourable reporting might result in losing access to information or being excluded from background briefings. This is observed not only by Sonneborn but also by some politicians themselves. Vice-President Barley has also called for more critical reporting. The European Parliament needed to move more into the focus of national media coverage, she says; public attention was the “most effective control.”

Behind each MEP, there is a vast machine of parties, hierarchies, and loyalties, many of which are invisible. The way they work is highlighted for example by the example of a high-ranking German administrative official against whom serious allegations have been raised: He is accused of harassing women and promising promotions in exchange for sexual favours. One woman who this allegedly happened to initially agreed to meet with us but later cancelled out of fear. No one speaks about this issue publicly. However, the suspicion was reportedly so concrete that his party promoted him, bot not to the high position as initially planned. He remains one of the most powerful men in the EU.

“Bumsberger” is what they call a pushy CDU MEP

In contrast to that, CDU politician Karolin Braunsberger-Reinhold is an example of a MEP known by name for allegedly sexually harassing two of her assistants – a man and a woman. During a wine hike in her constituency in Saxony-Anhalt, she reportedly got so drunk that she could barely walk and then became aggressive. She supposedly told her assistants that she was bisexual and wanted to “get laid.“ Later, on the way back, she allegedly groped her female employee’s breast.

This would probably never have come to light if someone hadn’t leaked the incidents to the German tabloid Bild.

The victims filed an official complaint. The body responsible for such cases in the EU Parliament is the Advisory Committee on Harassment Complaints. This committee investigated the case and came to a surprising conclusion: While the committee members confirmed the allegations, they did not suggest any sanctions. They weighed the “severity of the incidents“ against the “severity of the consequences“ for the politician’s life if the „sexual harassment were made public.“

When MEPs are punished, the sanctions are announced in the plenary session. Apparently, this was not desired in this case.

Braunsberger-Reinhold did not respond to a request for comment from CORRECTIV and Stern.

According to insiders, sanctions are generally only imposed if the committee decides unanimously. And even if so: The President of the Parliament always has the final say. That means: Roberta Metsola can always veto sanctions. In the case of Braunsberger-Reinhold, the committee did not recommend any consequences, and Metsola agreed. Someone with insight into the process attributes the decision to party loyalty—both politicians belong to the same parliamentary group, the conservative European People’s Party.

Metsola’s spokesman did not respond to questions about the committee’s decision, stating that individual cases would not be commented on. Among parliamentary staff, meanwhile, the case apparently caused amusement: Braunsberger-Reinhold has since been called “Bumsberger” (German mashup of the name Braunsberger and ‘Shagger’) in Brussels—as if it were all just a big joke.

Cases in almost all parliamentary groups

There are many more cases involving MEPs from many different nations and in practically all the parliamentary groups. The Danish MEP Karen Melchior of Renew is reportedly known for bullying staff; this has been covered in the Danish press, there is also an investigation within her party against her. In a Facebook post, she refers to the allegations, saying she was angry with herself – for not being aware of „problems“ in her office.

Some cases go directly to judicial authorities. Far-right Swedish MEP Peter Lundgren was convicted in his home country of groping a party colleague in the Swedish Parliament under her sweater with both hands. In April, an intern accused the Estonian right-wing populist Jaak Madison of sexual harassment. Madison denies the allegations, speaking of a “smear campaign“ and calling the victim “schizophrenic”. And Greek leftist Alexis Gergoulis is facing charges of raping an EU Commission employee. The Parliament has lifted his immunity.

It is late April, and the last week of plenary sessions in Strasbourg is underway. If you spend some time in this glass palace, you start to get the feeling of visiting a private function. There is a press apéro with Green MEP Rasmus Andresen where crémant and hors d’oeuvres are served along with information in response to the journalists’ questions—but only those questions that fit Andresen’s concept. When the investigative team from CORRECTIV and Stern inquires about the status of the Gallée case, the atmosphere shifts; Andresen interlocks his fingers and makes a stiff face.

Lewd jokes circulate on social media

He states that he cannot comment on the matter, as it concerns an internal procedure, and besides, he adds, it still needs to be clarified whether the reports in Stern are accurate. Despite being repeated asked, Andresen, 38 years old and spokesperson for the German Greens in the EU, refuses to discuss the issue further. He sounds annoyed, and the correspondents around him look down at the floor.

Since November, the Greens have an internal procedure in place for examining harassment cases. Additionally, the parliamentary group had its internal procedures evaluated by external consulting firms. While the conclusion of the evaluation has been presented in Strasbourg, the entire report has so far been withheld from parliamentarians and staff.

The corridors of the Parliament stretch out, a maze spread across 17 floors, with staircases leading up and down, galleries, platforms, and endless twists and turns. On a Thursday evening, the co-chair of the Greens’ parliamentary group, Philippe Lamberts from Belgium, announces his retirement. He invites everyone to a farewell party in the Parliament, which provides another occasion for lewd jokes. A journalist writes on X: “Get ready for several children to be born in 2025 who are named after him.”

“All of that will follow you, even into your next job”

As the tweet does the rounds, a young woman sits in a café and in her mind, she goes through the cases she has taken up in recent weeks. Posts like this may be meant to be funny, but Alejandra Almarcha says: “For victims of harassment, it’s intimidating.”

Alejandra Almarcha is part of the Harassment Support Network. Employees who have been bullied, harassed or victimised often can’t shake off their feeling of helplessness and are haunted by the same doubts and questions over and over, she says: Did I exaggerate? Was it really that bad? “And all of that will follow you, even into your next job.”

Since the network officially launched in March, around 20 people have already reached out to the volunteer counsellors. Almarcha says that „you need people who explain to you what you can do. These structures are lacking. That is why people come to us.“

There’s a celebration among the Social Democrats too. In the early evening, staff members gather in groups, with MEP Gaby Bischoff in the midst of them all. She’s in high spirits: she fought long and hard for what the MeToo EP group already demanded back in 2018—a mandatory training for MEPs aimed at raising awareness about harassment. There was considerable resistance, particularly from the Union, which blocked the initiative in Brussels.

“We women are being patronised,” says an SPD politician

The Conservatives argued that the obligation to undergo training would restrict their free mandate. The Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO), which is responsible for the regulations in Parliament, is dominated by elderly statesmen and former ministers. “We women are being patronised,” says Bischoff. Sometimes, she says, she had sometimes felt like wandering into a gentleman’s gathering in a pub.

As evening falls, some MEPs are speaking to chambers full of empty seats. Around them, their colleagues gather here and there for receptions. Dense crowds form at the counter of the “Bar des Cygnes” on the ground floor, while in the adjacent smoking room, the ashtrays already resemble those in a smokers’ bar just before closing time, with ash and cigarette butts scattered between overturned bottles.

Midnight approaches, and windows of most of the Parliament’s offices and plenary rooms are now dark. However lights are still burning bright in the bars in the town centre. MEPs, members of staff and officials make their way along cobblestone streets towards the Bar Les Aviateurs. Inside, it’s loud and stuffy; men and women in suits squeeze past each other towards the bar; almost everyone here works for the EU. Some of them are still wearing their MEP lanyards. On a gallery, a group of AfD staff members are dancing, while further back a CDU politician chats with journalists. Young women sway to the rhythm around an older politician from the right-wing populist party Lega Nord. MEPs stand on the sidelines, watching. Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” booms from the speakers.

“It’s like David against Goliath”

When speaking with employees who have tried to use the official channels, such as the parliamentary groups’ HR or the Parliament’s Harassment Committee, a sense of disillusionment is palpable. An intern is offered a ‘clarifying talk’ with the employee who allegedly sexually harassed and groped her. Some of the women affected have been waiting for months for a response. To others it appeared as if they were on trial themselves. “I felt like I was in the defensive,” says one victim.

Many staff members in the EU parliament feel exposed and defenseless in cases of harassment. Very often, as employees, experts, lawyers say, the victims do not report bullying or sexual transgressions to the officials in charge for fear of retaliation. Illustration: Christina S. Zhu

Another young woman says, ”it’s all or nothing. If you lose, you have to go back to the MEP or you get fired.“ What remains is a feeling of helplessness: “It’s like David against Goliath. We have no chance against the MEPs.”
A draft report from the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in the EU Parliament in January 2023 noted that “many cases of sexual harassment continue to go unreported because victims do not utilise the available channels.”

No MEP has been sanctioned for sexual harassment

Those who file a complaint with the Harassment Committee must answer questions orally before the committee. These questions are numerous and very detailed, requiring note-taking to ensure nothing is forgotten. The person who has filed the complaint often receives no information about the status of the proceedings. If sanctions are imposed, they are announced in the plenary session.

Not a single MEP has been sanctioned for sexual harassment in this legislative period, and only three for bullying. It is noteworthy that many women end up before the committee—as the accused. Two out of the three MEPs punished in this mandate were women.

Statistics in Germany indicate that over 80 percent of sexual harassment perpetrators are male.

The toughest sanctions this legislative term were imposed on a black woman, although rightly so, it seems: Liberal MEP Monica Semedo has come under the scrutiny of the committee twice, both times for the emotional abuse of her assistants. On one occasion, the Luxembourger was excluded from Parliament for 15 days, and on another occasion her daily allowance of €348 was suspended for ten days.

In a recent radio interview, Semedo categorically denied the allegations and publicly shamed her assistants. She suggested that their incompetence was the biggest problem, saying “they just drank coffee and didn’t listen.”

“Now I know my place,“ says one female assistant

If you ask the EU Ombudsman, everything seems to be in order. This institution is the last resort for when all other avenues have been exhausted and the point of contact for complaints regarding the administration of the institutions. Christophe Lesauvage, legal expert at the Ombudsman, says: “People who are working for the institutions of the EU are very well protected by the internal legal framework that aims at
preventing harassment: Normally you cannot face a situation where there is a gap and there is not a protection.“ Only a small number of incidents of harassment and bullying are reported to his authority – between 10 and 20 out of a total of 2400 complaints.

Statements from employees interviewed by CORRECTIV and Stern paint a very different picture. One employee says she was bullied and tormented, describing an atmosphere of constant fear. In her boss’s eyes, she could do nothing right. She received ever changing instructions, and when she followed them, it was always wrong. The politician first put her competence in doubt, then her as a person. The assistant struggled and was ultimately dismissed. She tried to fight back, involving HR, seeking mediation, and reaching out to confidential cousellors. “No one helped me,“ she says. “I listed point by point what had happened. They said ‘thank you. Goodbye.’ No one really listened.“

After a while her complaint was shelved. She had no choice but to find a new job. Now she works for an older conservative parliamentarian. “I know he doesn’t see me as an equal,” she says, but she no longer expects that, she says: “Now I know my place.”

Translation: Ellie Norman

Charlotte Wirth and Nicolas Büchse from Stern magazine contributed to the investigation.

The paragraph about the already known and previously reported allegations has been shortened for editorial reasons. With regards to the conviction for rape in the case of Margus Rahuoja, it was originally stated that he confessed to the crime. This is not true; he denied the allegations. We have corrected the error.