‘Qatargate’: the keys to the scandal rocking the European Parliament

Four influential figures in Brussels have been indicted on charges of corruption for allegedly receiving bribes to improve the public image of the Gulf country

European Parliament vice president, Greek socialist Eva Kaili, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France November 22, 2022.REUTERS
Silvia Ayuso

The arrest of one of the vice presidents of the European Parliament, the Greek socialist Eva Kaili, as part of a wider investigation into alleged bribes paid to members of the Brussels assembly to improve the public image of Qatar, has caused shockwaves in the seat of European policymaking. The probe has so far resulted in four indictments on charges of corruption and the seizure of hundreds of thousands of euros, but the investigation is far from concluded.

Less than a week after the first allegations came to light, the European Parliament is a hornet’s nest of suspicion and mistrust, while the heads of the main European institutions are trying to defend the “integrity” of the continental project in times of growing public distrust by pledging zero tolerance against corruption and greater transparency.

These are the main keys to the scandal, which has been dubbed “Qatargate,” and whose consequences are still far from clear.

What led to Qatargate?

On December 9, Belgian media outlets Le Soir and Knack reported that a Belgian judicial operation against MEPs suspected of having accepted bribes from Qatar had led to more than a dozen house searches and half a dozen arrests. Shortly afterwards, an official communication from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office confirmed the scale of the investigation: “For several months, investigators of the federal judicial police have suspected that a Gulf country is influencing the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament, and is doing so by means of considerable sums of money or by offering important gifts to persons with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament,” the statement read.

Who is involved in the scandal?

The investigation centers on allegations that Qatar paid bribes to gain influence at the European Parliament – accusations the Gulf state denies – and the principle suspects of having received them are high-ranking figures: Kaili, one of the 14 vice presidents in the Brussels assembly, and former socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who is the current director of the non-profit group Fight Impunity: paradoxically, Panzeri’s organization, dedicated to the fight against corruption and political impunity, appears to be at the heart of the scandal. Among the four people officially indicted on Sunday there is another individual connected to Fight Impunity, Panzeri’s former assistant and Kaili’s current partner, Francesco Giorgi.

The fourth suspect, according to Italian media, is human rights lobbyist Niccolo’ Figa-Talamanca. He was the head of the NGO No Peace Without Justice until Monday, when the organization founded in 1993 by former MEP and Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Emma Bonino announced he had been asked to step down. Kaili’s father was also arrested last Friday, allegedly at a Brussels hotel with a suitcase stuffed with “hundreds of thousands of euros.” General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Visentini, was also detained. Both men were released on bail on Sunday.

The Belgian Public Prosecutor’s Office has also reported that it seized €600,000 at Panzeri’s home and another €150,000 “in an apartment belonging to an MEP” who has been identified by parliamentary sources as Kaili.

Will there be more arrests?

The Belgian authorities have made it clear that the investigation, which was launched four months ago, remains open. In fact, a search was conducted at the Brussels headquarters of the European Parliament on Monday: officers seized computer data from 10 parliamentary assistants whose offices had been sealed on Friday to prevent evidence from being removed or concealed.

In the eye of the storm is the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), to which Kaili and, previously, Panzeri belonged. Over the weekend, authorities also searched the home of another member of the European Social Democrat group, the Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella, although he has not been charged at this stage. In an attempt to limit the damage, several Qatar-related S&D members announced on Monday that they are stepping down from their duties until the investigations have been concluded. In addition to Tarabella, who has asked to be suspended from the group, fellow Belgian Marie Arena, one of whose assistants has been questioned, has resigned as chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, while the Italian Pietro Bartolo has vacated his position as S&D chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs in negotiations over visa liberalization for Kuwait and Qatar. A fourth MEP, Andrea Cozzolino, has resigned as S&D emergency coordinator.

How has the European Parliament reacted?

The president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, has pledged there will be “no impunity” in the face of corruption and that the institution will not allow Qatargate to be “swept under the carpet.” Kaili has been officially removed from her position as European Parliament vice president and expelled from the S&D grouping and from PASOK, her party in the Greek parliament. Metsola also intends to open an internal investigation to “analyze all the facts related to the Parliament.”

The legislative chamber is also planning to review its internal regulations to tighten its vigilance over corruption. Aware that this case could spill over to other European institutions - several officials have already called for an investigation into Greek Commissioner Margaritis Schinas over his links with Qatar - and that Europe’s reputation is at stake against a backdrop of growing public mistrust of politics, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has proposed an independent ethics watchdog across all EU institutions, with “clear and strong” rules of integrity and transparency.

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