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Qatargate, one of the European Parliament’s biggest scandals, involved several senior European officials, including a Vice-President of the European Parliament, who were arrested for “participation in a criminal organization, corruption, and money laundering”. As part of an international investigation, the detainees were accused of trying to improve Qatar’s image as the host country of the World Cup in 2022 in exchange for cash payments and other generous rewards from Doha. The first reaction of Brussels to the scandal was the cancellation of the EU Parliament’s vote on Qatar’s visa-free entry to the EU and the refusal to send a parliamentary delegation to the Emirate. Qatargate has been a major setback for the EU.

Murat Gibadyuko, 23 May 2023

The European Parliament (EP) has had a major corruption scandal involving several members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and other high-level officials. On 9 December 2022, the Brussels newspaper Le Soir published an investigation on bribery in the EP which was then investigated by the Belgian authorities. They conducted searches of 20 residences, offices, and hotel rooms and arrested multiple individuals in and around Brussels who were accused of accepting bribes from Qatar and giving other MEPs large sums of money and valuable gifts. This was done in an attempt to influence EU policy and improve Qatar’s image in the run-up to the World Cup in 2022. The Belgian authorities announced they had recovered about EUR EUR 1.5 million in cash from the key suspects and confiscated EP computers to prevent the deletion of important data.

Among those arrested were an EP Vice-President, Eva Kaili, a now former member of the Socialists & Democrats Group  (S&D Group) at the EP; her domestic partner, Francesco Giorgi, who was an adviser of the Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, also a member of the S & D Group ; Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, Director of the NGO “No Peace Without Justice”; Luca Visentini, Secretary-General of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC); and Antonio Panzeri, a former politician, and President of the NGO “Fight Impunity”.

The investigation showed that Pierre-Antonio Panzeri was the first person that the Qataris “took under their wing,” seeking access to the EP. Panzeri was a former Italian MEP and in 2019 founded a human rights organization, “Fight Impunity”, in Brussels, which was used to cover-up his actions. The investigation revealed that the Qataris offered Panzeri a vacation worth EUR 100 000, which he accepted and then repaid by using his connections to influence the MEPs in favor of Qatar and Morocco.

The Qatar World Cup has been plagued by scandals, particularly owing to the appalling working conditions endured by millions of migrant workers at the event’s numerous construction sites. Thirteen years ago, when Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, many labor organizations denounced the corruption at FIFA and the working conditions faced by workers in Qatar.

But a few months before the World Cup, the tone of the statements suddenly began to change. The former head of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Vizentini, was linked to efforts to whitewash Qatar’s image with positive statements about Qatari labor reforms ahead of the 2022 World Cup. While Vizentini denied his guilt in participating in the corruption scheme, he admitted to receiving a EUR 50 000 “donation” from the “Fight Impunity” NGO, which is accused of brokering bribes from the Qatari government. Vizentini was later released without charges, but was removed from his position by a vote at the ITUC.

In connection with the arrest of the EP Vice-President, Eva Kaili and Francesco Giorgi, several bags of cash were found in Kaili and Giorgi’s residence during the police raids in Brussels. On the same day, Eva Kaili’s father was apprehended with a suitcase full of cash which, according to Kaili, belonged to the orchestrator of the scheme, Antonio Panzeri. Kaili’s lawyers defended their client’s innocence, claiming she called Belgian police as soon as she learned of Giorgi’s arrest in the news, although Giorgi was not named in the initial media reports. While the exact connection and involvement of Eva Kaili in the scheme have not yet been completely uncovered, she visited Doha in November 2022 to discuss cooperation between the EU and Qatar. Later that month she gave a speech at the European Parliament hailing Qatar as “a frontrunner in labor rights” for its decision to scrap the migrant workers’ sponsorship system. In addition, in early December 2022, Kaili voted in favor of visa liberation for Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens.

The documents obtained by Le Soir revealed that Francesco Giorgi confessed to being part of an “organization” used by Qatar and Morocco to influence European policy-making. Francesco Giorgi served as a parliamentary assistant for Panzeri and later for Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, who is also believed to have participated in the cash-for-favors scheme. Giorgi tried to take the blame off Kaili by accusing his former boss of accepting cash through Panzeri’s management.

At the time of this article, all the arrested suspects had been released with electronic monitoring tags awaiting further trial. The alleged mastermind of the fraud, Antonio Panzeri, has struck a deal with the prosecutors to reveal the details of the operation for a “limited sentence”.

It did not take long for the European leaders to react to the scandal. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that “the allegations are of utmost concern”. Additionally, she reiterated her proposal to create an independent ethics body for the EU institutions and reaffirmed that the Commission plans to start checking all its staff for contacts with Qatar.

Olaf Scholz, the social democrat German chancellor, declined to make a snap judgment when asked if the scandal would affect Germany’s business ties with Qatar. “What needs to be reviewed is which accusations are to be made against those who are now confronted with the accusation of having been bribed, and of course this also applies to those who were on the other side, meaning those who bribed,” he said. Weeks prior to the scandal and the arrests, Germany had signed a 15-year contract with Qatar to purchase liquid gas.

The scandal has had a damaging impact on the European Parliament’s reputation. Despite the cancellation of the vote on granting Qatari citizens visa-free travel to the EU and the refusal of the parliamentary delegation to visit the Emirate, the EU has become the main victim, as this scandal has cast a shadow over the EU’s integrity and raised questions about its commitment to transparency and accountability. The full extent of Qatargate should become apparent during the on-going trial.

After the arrests were revealed in the news, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote on his Twitter account: “Good morning to the European Parliament”. He accompanied the post with a meme with the caption: “And then they said the EP is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary.”

So one must indeed demand to know: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “who will guard the guardians?”

Picture: Corruption in the EU Symbolic image on corruption in the European Union. © IMAGO / IlluPics
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