Belgian MEP Maria Arena’s position as Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) is the latest fatality in the Qatargate scandal after she resigned in the wake of reports that she failed to report a luxury holiday paid for by the Qatari state.
Arena, who blames her secretary for the shortcoming, did not properly declare to the European Parliament that her accommodation and return flights to Doha on 8 and 9 May last year had been paid for by the Qatari government.
Arena’s position as the EP’s human rights chair is particularly sensitive given Qatar’s sketchy human rights record. The trip was also taken at the height of criticism over Qatar’s deplorable treatment of workers imported into the Gulf State to build the stadiums and amenities for the country’s hosting of the World Cup last month.
The resignation came on Thursday right after Politico reported the trip and the undeclared freebies. Arena – a member of Belgium’s Socialist Party and the EP’s Socialists & Democrats (S&D) political grouping – had earlier temporarily stepped down from the position in December after it was reported she had over 400 phone calls between December 2021 and September 2022 with former DROI chair Antonio Panzeri.
Panzeri had been heavily implicated in the Qatargate scandal, in which the Qatari regime is accused of having made payments of several hundreds of thousands of euros to various senior political officials in exchange for their support for Qatar.
He stands accused of allegedly taking and distributing cash bribes to help Qatar further its influence inside EU decision-making circles. He was named as a central figure in the investigation after the discovery of €1.5 million in cash and two other suspects’ houses.
Eva Kaili, a senior Greek socialist, lost her position as an EP Vice President after being arrested as part of the criminal investigation being undertaken by Belgian authorities.
Arena has defended herself by saying her decision to resign was taken “in view of the politico-media attacks of recent weeks that are damaging not only my image, but also all the work carried out within the DROI Subcommittee.”
She insists she has not been suspected of involvement in the Qatargate scandal – unlike her fellow S&D MEPs Eva Kaili, Andrea Cozzolino and Marc Tabella – by noting how the Belgian authorities have not requested the lifting of her parliamentary immunity, that she has not been questioned and that neither her home nor office has been searched.
Arena pointed out that she had also failed to report similar journeys to Lebanon and Burkina Faso, and blamed her parliamentary assistant for failing to fill out the required expense forms properly.
“It’s true, I have made three trips by invitation since the beginning of my mandate,” she told the Belgian press. “The person who takes care of my statements in the transparency register, a rather complicated document to fill out, did not declare these trips because she didn’t know it had to be done.”
“I proclaim loud and clear that I am not implicated in any way in this affair,” she wrote in a statement, denying any role in the Qatargate scandal.
“But in light of the political and media attacks from the past few weeks that damage not only my image, but also all of the work done in the heart of the DROI sub-committee, I have decided to resign from the post of president.”
Under European Parliament rules, MEPs are supposed to register gifts on a special transparency register and Arena potentially faces a fine of close to €10,000 for her failure to list the Qatar trip.
The DROI committee is now at the centre of allegations of corruption and money laundering, with three out of four suspects being held in custody on preliminary charges having links to the committee.
In a statement on Friday, the European People’s Party – S&D’s main political rivals at the European Parliament – said Arena’s resignation “will allow the members of the committee to resume their work in a more serene atmosphere”.
The EPP’s human rights spokesperson MEP Isabel Wiseler-Lima added that the EPP “has always defended human rights worldwide and considers the work of the DROI Committee as highly important. This is why it was necessary that this situation be clarified so that the committee can work in a more serene atmosphere.”
The storm came after Politico revealed the extent of Qatar’s links to the committee, reporting how a special deal was struck by Qatar the former chair Panzeri, how key criminal suspects worked with the committee behind the scenes and concerns that some parliamentary hearings were unbalanced.
In response to the scandal, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola on Thursday set out a 14-point plan to tighten rules for MEPs on contacts with lobbyists and financial declarations.
Metsola presented her proposals in a closed-door meeting with the heads of the Parliament’s nine political groups, officially called the Conference of Presidents.
But Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela, a domestic political rival of Metsola, has accused her of having moved “too quickly”, and has insisted that links between Qatar and the European Union – particularly in terms of energy supply – should not be tainted by the allegations.