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Under-fire EU Parliament vows to clean up its act

The European Parliament pledged Thursday to clean up its act after lawmakers were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for votes, tainting the European Union's only directly-elected body.

With 5,000 lobbying groups pushing their agendas to lawmakers from 27 nations, the heads of the political blocs agreed to set up a working group to improve transparency in the corridors of the 736-member assembly.

The panel will hold its first meeting Monday and submit proposals by this summer, with the aim of creating a code of conduct which currently does not exist for lawmakers.

The parliament has been plunged into turmoil in recent weeks over a "cash for laws" scandal involving European business interests. The atmosphere deteriorated further with separate reports of massive expenses fraud.

The scandal erupted after a trio of lawmakers from Austria, Romania and Slovenia -- all former ministers -- were exposed by journalists from Britain's Sunday Times newspaper posing as lobbyists.

The Euro-MPs agreed to introduce amendments to European laws, including related to banks, in exchange for bribes of up to 100,000 euros ($140,000).

Two of them, Slovenia's Zoran Thaler and Austria's Ernst Strasser, have resigned. The parliament opened a procedure this week to lift the immunity of Romania's Adrian Severin.

"Accepting money in exchange for services is unacceptable in this house," said the head of the Severin's Socialist bloc, Martin Schulz.

The scandal has dented the credibility of a legislature still struggling to gain recognition among Europeans at large despite its increasing influence in EU policy-making.

The legislature has faced criticism in the past over the chronic absenteeism of its members and the questionable use of allowances for personal expenses.

As the parliament tried to root out any hint of corruption, a new controversy erupted this week when a majority of Euro MP's refused to back an amendment that would have barred them from flying in business class for flights of under four hours.

The measure would have saved between 15 million and 20 million euros, according to the lawmakers who sought the change.

With a code of conduct, the parliament wants to restrict the practice of Euro MPs having private sector jobs or holding other elected offices in their home countries.

Several MPs hold other positions outside Strasbourg even though they are paid 8,000 euros a month as members of the European Parliament. They receive another 20,000 euros for expenses, staff and travel reimbursements.

The influential French Euro MP Alain Lamassoure voice doubts that the new measures would lead to a change of culture.

"It is not the rules that failed here, it is men who failed," he said, "and it's not because you have a bunch of rules that you will be able to prevent them from being broken."

ylf/lth/har

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