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European Parliament hit with a bribery scandal, members accused of lobbying for Qatar. Here is all you need to know

The European Parliament (EP), one of the several institutions of the European Union (EU), has been hit by allegations of corruption. Dubbed the ‘most egregious’ scandal in years, several sitting and ex-members of the EP have been accused of lobbying for Qatar.

The story unfolded on Friday (December 9) when the federal police in Belgium conducted raids in the capital city of Brussels. A total of 4 high-profile individuals were arrested by the police over charges of corruption, criminal organisation and money laundering.

Phones, computers and a whopping pile of €600,000 in cash (₹5.23 crores) were also recovered. By Sunday (December 11), the law enforcement authorities seized an additional €1,50,000 from the residence of a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and arrested two more accused.

In a news release, the Belgian prosecutor’s office informed, “For several months, investigators from the Federal Judicial Police suspect a Gulf country of influencing the European Parliament’s (EP) economic and political decisions.”

It further added, “This is done so by paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to third parties with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament.” The investigation into the case has reportedly been underway for the past 4 months.

Although the initial statement did not name ‘names’, it soon came to light that the country in question was the FIFA World Cup host Qatar. Investigators are now probing whether the Gulf Nation engaged in ways that went beyond ‘classic lobbying.’

One of those arrested by the Belgian federal police included a Vice-President of the European Parliament named Eva Kaili. It must be mentioned that she is a native of Greece and was a member of the leading opposition party in the country, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).

She was expelled by PASOK over allegations of corruption and lobbying for Qatar. Eva Kaili was a member of the second-largest party of the European Parliament, namely, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Following her arrest, she was also suspended by the party with immediate effect. The development was confirmed by S&D in a tweet on Saturday (December 10).

It must be mentioned that Eva Kaili served as one of the 14 Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament. Known for her immense influence within the EP, she had been one of the vocal cheerleaders of the authoritarian regime in Qatar.

When Qatar was faced with criticism over its treatment of migrant workers in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup 2022, Eva Kaili defended the Middle Eastern nation as the “frontrunner in labour rights.” She had also met Qatar’s Labour Minister Dr Ali bin Samikh Al Marri in October this year.

A month later, she claimed in the European Parliament that Qatar had undergone a ‘historical transformation’. She also extended support for visa liberalisation for residents of Qatar and Kuwait.

Reportedly, the Delegation for Relations With the Arab Peninsula (DARP) of the European Parliament was scheduled to visit Qatar before the commencement of the World Cup and take note of the tournament facilities and labour law changes.

However, the Shura Council (the consultative assembly of Qatar) asked DARP to postpone its plans. Eva Kaili went to Doha on her own accord and claimed to represent 500 million European citizens.

According to one Member of the European Parliament, Hannah Neumann, the reason Qatar ‘uninvited’ DARP members and instead Kaili was because she would be ‘less critical’ of the country’s affairs. She was reportedly caught with ‘bags of cash from Qatar.’

The other ‘players’ in the scandal

The Belgian federal police have also detained the partner of Kaili, Franceso Giorgi, who incidentally worked as an adviser on North Africa and the Middle East in the European Parliament.

Giorgi is also the founder of an NGO named ‘Fight Impunity’ whose members are also under the scanner in connection to the scandal. One of them included the President of the NGO, Pier Antonio Panzeri.

Interestingly, Panzeri served as a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP). His arrest on Friday (December 9) was soon followed by the arrest of his daughter and wife.

According to the German newspaper Politico, Panzeri’s arrest warrant mentioned that he “intervened politically with members working at the European Parliament for the benefit of Qatar and Morocco.”

Similarly, the office of the aide of a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Belgium, Marie Arena, has also been sealed. “If Qatar is doing so, I know that others are doing exactly the same. And so we have to really prevent this kind of capacity to influence,” she said about the development.

She is also known for her close ties to the NGO of Kaili’s husband, Fight Impunity. Interestingly, the same NGO has ties with another NGO named ‘No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ)’.

In fact, the founder of NPWJ, Emma Bonino, serves as an honorary board member of Fight Immunity. Coincidentally, both NGOs are registered at the same address in the capital city of Belgium.

Bonino had also served as a former Member of the European Parliament. Amidst the ongoing investigation into allegations of corruption and lobbying, the Director General of ‘No Peace Without Justice’ named Niccolò Figà-Talamanca was also detained.

Besides members connected to the two NGOs and the European Parliament, the secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Luca Visentini was also detained.

He was later released on Sunday (December 11) by the Belgian judicial authorities. ITUC has a history of not being critical of Qatar’s treatment of migrant labourers.

Coincidentally, Luca Visentini had earlier served as the chief of an organisation named the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the office of which in Brussels is also registered at the same address as the NGOs Fight Impunity and No Peace Without Justice.

Qatar dismisses allegations, European Parliament moves to undo the damage

The Gulf nation of Qatar has been under the scanner in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup 2022 over its treatment of women, migrant labourers and people identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Islamic country is now accused of using its riches to influence people, holding strategic positions of power in the European Parliament, changing diplomatic ties, and expediting energy deals.

Until recently, the EP was even deliberating on a proposal to grant visa-free travel to residents of Qatar to the Schengen Area (a set of 27 countries within Europe that allows for free movement for both EU and non-EU nationals).

In a statement on Sunday (December 11), a Qatari official said, “Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed. The State of Qatar works through institution-to-institution engagement and operates in full compliance with international laws and regulations.”

Despite the attempt of the Gulf nation to brush the matter under the carpet, the European Parliament is mulling measures to undo the damage caused to its reputation and integrity.

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) has urged the EP to halt the visa liberalisation process for Qatari citizens. Besides, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament had cancelled its upcoming trip to Qatar.

Reactions to the scandal

In a statement, the President of the European parliament Roberta Metsola informed, “Our European parliament stands firmly against corruption.”

She further emphasised, “At this stage, we cannot comment on any ongoing investigations except to confirm that we have & will cooperate fully with all relevant law enforcement & judicial authorities. We’ll do all we can to assist the course of justice.”

In the aftermath of the lobbying scandal, Metsola had reportedly suspended all powers of Eva Kaili as Vice-President of the EP. The other members are also likely to revoke her parliamentary immunity soon.

Danield Freund, a member of the European Parliament from the German Green party, dubbed the controversy as “most serious corruption scandal in Brussels in recent decades.”

“This is the most shocking integrity scandal in the history of the EU. It unveils the inadequacy of the EU ethics system applicable to its elected as well as the absence of any attempt at governing foreign influence lobbying,” transparency activist and Professor Alberto Alemanno told Politico.

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Dibakar Dutta
Dibakar Dutta
Centre-Right. Political analyst. Assistant Editor @Opindia. Reach me at [email protected]

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