On Monday, President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola warned MEPs that “malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries have allegedly “weaponised NGOs, unions, individuals, assistants and MEPS to subdue our processes,” adding that European democracy “is under attack”.
Metsola addressed the crisis during the opening of the plenary session in Strasbourg on Monday afternoon. Her comments come after news emerged that Belgian investigators had searched the EP’s offices in a probe into alleged bribes from World Cup host Qatar involving, among others, Greek MEP and one of the parliament’s 14 vice presidents Eva Kaili.
What we know so far
Belgian police have so far charged four people with “participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption”, prosecutors said in a statement on Sunday.
Eva Kaili is among those who have been indicted. Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant, and former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who now runs the human rights group Fight Impunity, were also reportedly arrested.
Prosecutors also carried out a string of searches over several days and said cash worth about €600,000 had been found at the home of one suspect, €150,000 at the flat of an MEP and €750,000 in a suitcase in a Brussels hotel room.
Since Friday, the IT resources of 10 employees of the European Parliament have been “frozen” to prevent the disappearance of data necessary for the investigation.
During her speech, Metsola confirmed that Kaili has been stripped of the tasks related to her role as vice president. She also informed the parliament that she had convened a meeting of the Conference of Presidents to bring Kaili’s term as vice president to an end.
In view of the ongoing investigations,@Europarl_EN has decided that Eva Kaili is no longer one of its Vice-Presidents.
This decision is effective immediately.
We will continue to fully cooperate with relevant national law enforcement and judicial authorities.
— Roberta Metsola (@EP_President) December 13, 2022
On Tuesday, the European Parliament voted to end Eva Kaili’s vice-president status with an overwhelming majority of 625 to one. Kaili has denied any involvement.
What is the scandal about?
Many details of the story remain unclear, and much has yet to unfold. Still, according to several news reports, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office suspects that Qatar sought the help of several people within the European Parliament, who were known for championing workers’ rights to improve its image within European institutions and, by extension, the West.
The formal charges are criminal conspiracy, money laundering, and bribery. Belgian prosecutors suspect that “people inside the European Parliament were paid large amounts of money or received significant gifts to influence the decisions of the European Parliament” regarding Qatar.
The case seems to centre around the NGO Fight Impunity that, until recently, counted some of the biggest luminaries in left-wing politics among its board members.
Pier Antonio Panzeri founded Fight Impunity in 2019 after 15 years as an MEP. Panzeri was known for his influence within the largest centre-left parliamentary group, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), particularly concerning labour rights issues. Before entering politics, Panzeri was the secretary general of Milan’s Camera del Lavoro (Trade Union headquarters).
Prosecutors suspect that Panzeri may have exploited the contacts he accumulated over his fifteen years as an MEP to build a career as a mediator and lobbyist, using his experience to provide services to clients such as Qatar through the operational arm of Fight Impunity.
Together with Panzeri, almost all the people arrested or questioned by the Belgian federal police are close to the former Italian MEP.
Eva Kailis was one of the EU Parliament’s 14 vice presidents. She was a member of the S&D party, and her portfolio included special responsibilities related to the Middle East, where she emerged as one of Qatar’s most vocal defenders.
Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, has also been reportedly detained. He is a parliamentary assistant and an adviser to the European Parliament on the Middle East and North Africa region. Until January, he was listed as a senior volunteer advisor with Fight Impunity.
Another suspect, according to Italian news agency Ansa, is Niccolò Figa-Talamanca, who runs the NGO No Peace Without Justice. This organisation focuses on international criminal justice, human rights and promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and shares the same address as Fight Impunity.
Why is Qatar lobbying?
In the west, Qatar has had an image problem for years, particularly with allegations of slave-like conditions for the migrant workers who built the skyscrapers and stadiums for the World Cup, and because of accusations of corruption and controversial deals with other states to gain influence internationally.
As Qatar is trying to work out deals with EU countries for its natural gas, maintaining a good reputation remains crucial.
In a statement to Agence France Presse (AFP), a Qatari government spokesperson said: “We are not aware of any details of an investigation. Any claims of misconduct by the State of Qatar are gravely misinformed”.
Qatar’s gains within the EU Parliament
Eva Kaili was arguably one of Qatar’s most prominent defenders. Despite deep international concerns about conditions for the world cup stadium construction workers, Kaili recently stated that the country was a “frontrunner in labour rights” after meeting with the country’s labour minister.
On 24 November, as the plenary passed a resolution “deplor[ing] the deaths of thousands of migrant workers,” Kaili took the floor to praise the “historical transformation” of Qatar brought on by the World Cup. Similarly, according to Politico, she showed up to vote in favour of visa liberalisation for Qatar and Kuwait in the Parliament’s justice and home affairs committee — even though she’s not a committee member.
Until Monday, a proposal to give Qataris visa-free travel to the EU’s Schengen was also moving forward in Parliament but has now been paused.
It has yet to be determined whether the praise and advantages bestowed on Qatar are due to legitimate personal convictions or due to the alleged persuasion campaign by Panzeri, who, for all we know, may be unrelated to the suspected Qatari bribery operation.
What is certain is that the ongoing scandal has brought into sharp focus the European Parliament’s vulnerability to influence from lobbyists and external countries.
The European Parliament has less stringent rules than the European Commission on transparency and relations with lobbyists. A cross-party majority of MEPs has long rejected any proposal to tighten these rules.
Only last week, Transparency International published a report that found MEPs’ publication of their lobby meetings patchy at best. The information was based on an analysis of more than 28,000 lobby meetings published by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and found that between June 2019 and July 2022, just over half of MEPs used the Parliament’s publication system.
In reaction to the unfolding European Parliament scandal, Michiel van Hulten, Director of Transparency International EU, said, “While this may be the most egregious case of alleged corruption the European Parliament has seen in many years, it is not an isolated incident. Over many decades, the Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) ethics oversight”.
He added, “In many ways, it has become a law unto itself.”