Police on Monday launched a new wave of crackdowns on political figures in Brussels over alleged corruption linked to Qatari interests, in a scandal that threatens to wreck the European Union’s democracy.
“The European Parliament,” said its President Roberta Metsola at a session in Strasbourg on Monday, “is under attack.”
The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in Parliament is at the center of this attack for the time being. In Brussels, police searched the parliamentary office of Greek MEP Eva Kaili, who is currently being held in a prison cell while awaiting a court appearance scheduled for Wednesday.
Meanwhile, she was expelled from the S&D group by her colleagues in Strasbourg as her fellow MEPs prepared to strip her of the Vice-President title.
Several other S&D members – who are not directly involved but are being investigated for their links to the accused and for their support of Qatar – also agreed to step down from key duties, including MEP Marie Arena as Chair of Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee .
In all, Belgian police made six arrests (although two people, Kaili’s father and union leader Luca Visentini, were released) and searched 19 private homes. The cops’ loot includes €600,000 in a private home, “several hundred thousand euros” in a suitcase stolen from a Brussels hotel and €150,000 in Kaili’s apartment. Her family’s assets in Greece have been frozen.
After police blocked access to IT equipment over the weekend, she said she retrieved the data on Monday. In addition to Kaili’s office, two assistant offices were also marked “access prohibited” as of Monday afternoon. One marked F. Giorgi – Kaili’s partner, also in custody – and the other marked E. Foulon and G. Meroni. The latter is a former assistant to Pier Antonio Panzeri, the ex-MP at the center of the alleged scandal.
“European democracy is under attack,” Metsola told the plenary as she vowed to launch an internal investigation.
The call for an investigation was repeated by MEPs in Strasbourg and across the bloc. “Europe’s credibility is at stake,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
For watchdogs, however, the threat to Europe’s credibility has always been clear. The scandal is not an attack, but “self-inflicted damage”. tweeted Good Lobby founder Alberto Alemanno in response to Metsola’s speech. “The European Parliament and most of its members have historically resisted stricter integrity rules and an effective enforcement system.”
The EU’s transparency register is full of loopholes and voluntary elements: Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, for example, received Panzeri’s NGO Fight Impunity to provide reports, even though it was not listed in the transparency register.
Because of its activities, Fight Impunity should have been included in the database, the registry’s secretariat said in an email. However, since they are not required by law to register, there is no way to penalize them for violating the register’s code of conduct.
Similarly, a proposal for an independent EU ethics panel in the Commission has been put on hold. Vice President for Transparency Věra Jourová cited legal hurdles and a lack of interest in an ethics authority that would apply to all institutions and actually have enforcement powers.
On Monday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed her new determination to create an overarching monitoring body. “It’s very important not just to have strict rules, but to have the same rules for all EU institutions and not allow exceptions,” she told reporters.
But for all the talk about protecting trust and promoting transparency in the EU institutions, top officials have balked at early opportunities to put this into practice. Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant quickly closed questions when journalists tried to pressure von der Leyen over tweets by Margaritis Schinas, a vice-president of the commission, praising Qatar’s labor reforms ahead of the World Cup.
There was a similar (virtual) scene in Strasbourg, where a speaker of Parliament declined to answer questions by reporters in an online press conference.
“Our path towards open, free and democratic societies is under attack,” Metsola said in Strasbourg. “The enemies of democracy, for whom the very existence of this Parliament is a threat, will stop at nothing. These malicious actors, linked to autocratic third countries, have allegedly armed NGOs, trade unions, individuals, assistants and members of the European Parliament to suppress our processes.”
In Budapest, Viktor Orbán, who leads a country that the European Parliament has declared “no longer a democracy”, seized his chance. The Hungarian Prime Minister tweeted a morning salute to Parliament, with a photograph of former world leaders in engravings. The caption: “And then they said… The EP is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary.”
Pieter Haeck, Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif, Clothilde Goujard, Nektaria Stamouli, Gabriel Rinaldi, Wilhelmine Preussen and Suzanne Lynch contributed to the reporting.