European parliament shaken by Qatar corruption scandal

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The European parliament is at the centre of a spreading corruption scandal after Belgian police seized €600,000 in cash and detained two MEPs as part of an international investigation into claims that football World Cup host Qatar sought to buy influence.

A Belgian judge charged four unnamed people on Sunday with “participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption” following multiple arrests and house searches over the weekend, including the homes of two MEPs and a former MEP’s family in Italy.

The charges against the MEPs have already triggered resignations and the suspension of a parliamentary vote on granting Qatari nationals visa-free travel to the bloc, due next week.

Parliamentarians have voiced shock at the arrests of the four people — and of the related detention of family members of a former Italian MEP, who were allegedly offered a holiday worth €100,000 by the Qataris. Campaigners have lambasted the parliament’s “culture of impunity”.

The allegations come as Qatar is the centre of world attention, with the World Cup semi-finals and final to be played over the next week. The matches are the culmination of a tournament the Gulf state had long sought but which has brought unprecedented scrutiny of its stance on gay rights, treatment of migrant workers and the use of its wealth to bolster its role in the world.

Belgium’s federal prosecutors’ office said it suspected “that third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence parliament’s decision”.

Prosecutors had previously said Belgian police investigators suspected a “Gulf country” of seeking to sway the parliament. An official familiar with the investigation confirmed that the country in question was Qatar.

Doha has rejected any allegations of misconduct. “Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed,” an official said.

While Belgian authorities have not named the suspects, Eva Kaili, a vice-president of the European parliament, has been stripped of her duties in the legislature as well as her membership in Pasok, the Greek socialist party.

Kaili, a former TV news presenter, defended Qatar’s human rights record last month in the parliament, hailing the country as “a frontrunner in labour rights” for its decision to scrap a migrant workers sponsorship system.

She alleged that other MEPs were seeking to discriminate against Qatar “and accuse everyone that talks to them or engages [in] corruption, but still, they take their gas”. Kaili did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Italian prosecutors added that Antonio Panzeri, president of a Brussels-based NGO and a former MEP, had been detained in the Belgian capital, while his wife and daughter had been held in Bergamo on the basis of a European arrest warrant.

Both the Italian women deny the allegations, according to their lawyer. Panzeri did not respond to a request for comment.

Panzeri, then an MEP, was the first person to be approached by the Qataris, according to Italian investigators who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Several former leading EU officials, including Federica Mogherini, previously the bloc’s foreign policy chief, and France’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, subsequently quit as honorary board members of Panzeri’s NGO, Fight Impunity.

The largest political group in the European parliament, the centre-right European People’s party said it was “shocked” about the corruption probe and that “no stone should be left unturned”.

Italian MEP Dino Giarrusso said he and many other legislators in Brussels had been approached by Qatari officials numerous times since 2019. “They were hoping to improve the country’s reputation especially in the run-up to the Fifa World Cup,” Giarrusso said.

Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, said EU institutions needed an independent ethics regulator.

“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,” said its director, former MEP Michiel van Hulten.

Additional reporting by Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens and Simeon Kerr in Dubai

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