VIENNA (Reuters) - Disgraced Austrian politician Ernst Strasser goes on trial on Monday in a corruption case that has undermined trust in European and Austrian institutions.
The former Austrian interior minister and European lawmaker could face 10 years in jail if convicted, after being caught on camera offering to propose amendments to European laws in exchange for 100,000 euros ($130,000 a year).
Strasser, 56, was exposed last year by undercover journalists from Britain’s Sunday Times posing as lobbyists. He resigned while denying wrongdoing, saying he wanted to protect his party, the Austrian conservative OVP.
“Of course I am a lobbyist,” he told the journalists in a secretly filmed video. “This is a wonderful opportunity to learn all the people, to have my own network, and to use this network for my, for my companies. It’s a very good combination.”
Strasser, one of several once-mighty Austrian politicians brought down by recent corruption scandals, told the journalists he already had five such clients.
He later said in an interview he went along with the “lobbyists” because he believed they were secret service agents and he wanted to follow their trail.
The trial in Vienna comes as European politicians battle to keep faith with the post-war ideals of European integration and rejection of extreme nationalism that led to the founding of what would become the European Union more than 60 years ago.
As the 27 nation bloc struggles to contain a debt crisis, a gulf is widening between more affluent countries and poorer members like Greece, which faces expulsion from the euro zone if it does not maintain a course of harsh austerity measures.
Euroscepticism and nationalism are on the rise in many European countries. In Britain, which has always had a difficult relationship with its continental partners, talk that it could leave the EU has begun to shift from the fringes to the center of political debate.
Less than half of the EU’s half a billion citizens voted in the last European Parliament elections in 2009, and a poll last year found that 26 percent had a negative image of the parliament, up from 17 percent three years earlier.
“Most European parliamentarians are as lazy as I am,” Strasser told the Sunday Times journalists.
Three other European lawmakers were caught by the Sunday Times sting operation: Romania’s Adrian Severin, Slovenia’s Zoran Thaler and Spain’s Pablo Zalba Bidegain.
Thaler resigned after the scandal but the other two still sit in parliament.
Eight days have been allotted for Strasser’s trial, which begins at 0700 GMT and has drawn wide international interest. ($1 = 0.7717 euros)
Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Myra MacDonald