The European Union has spent the last few days being gripped by one of the worst scandals in Brussels in decades.
Belgian police said late last week that they had raided and arrested four people in connection with an ongoing corruption probe into alleged payments and gifts from Qatar to Members of the European Parliament (MEP) and their staff.
The investigation targets alleged “corruption” and “money laundering” by an organized group aiming to influence “the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament” through money and gifts, reports Belgian public broadcaster and CNN Daughter RTBF citing prosecutors.
The most prominent of those arrested is Greek MEP Eva Kaili, who at the time of her arrest was one of 14 Vice-Presidents of Parliament whose post she has since been stripped of. Both Qatar and Kaili have denied any wrongdoing.
Kaili failed to appear for a scheduled hearing on Wednesday and was remanded in custody until she appears in court on December 22, Belgian federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors confirmed on Wednesday that a “large-scale investigation” into alleged criminal activities, corruption and money laundering was being carried out in the European Parliament. Kaili and three others were arrested on Friday in an ongoing corruption probe into alleged payments and gifts by Qatar to members and staff of Parliament, conducted by Belgium’s federal prosecutor.
Kaili, who spoke out for Qatar in the European Parliament, traveled to Qatar just before the start of the World Cup.
Responding to criticism of Qatar over alleged human rights abuses and the treatment of migrant workers, Kaili told MEPs on November 21: “Today, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is a real testament to how sports diplomacy can lead to historic change in the world a country whose reforms have inspired the Arab world… Qatar is a leader in labor rights.”
The Belgian Federal Police on Wednesday posted an image on its official Twitter account of what they believe was some of the cash confiscated as part of the investigation.
“As part of proceedings by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office for suspected corruption by people working in the European Parliament, the Federal Criminal Police have seized almost 1.5 million euros during searches in the Brussels region,” the Belgian Federal Police said in the tweet.
While this scandal has rocked Brussels, the allegations come as no great surprise to those familiar with the European institutions, particularly Parliament.
“Parliament has tolerated a culture of impunity for years,” said Nicholas Aiossa, deputy director of Transparency International EU, an anti-corruption organization. “There is virtually no oversight or impact on the way MPs spend their allowances and we have seen these funds abused so often.”
Aiossa believes institutional corruption is only a small part of what would make an MEP such an inviting target for those trying to influence European politics.
“Parliament collectively has a lot of power over the direction of policy, which offers access to a huge market of over 400 million citizens. However, MEPs themselves often have a very low profile outside of the Brussels bubble, which probably helps avoid scrutiny.”
It is not only in politics that MPs can use their position to exercise power. Bill Newton Dunn, a former British MEP, explains: “When the European Parliament publishes a resolution on an important issue, the international media very often pick it up as the voice of Europe. Overall, the votes of the MPs carry weight.”
Indeed, Kaili’s intervention in support of Qatar came on November 21 during the debate on a human rights resolution in Qatar ahead of the World Cup. The resolution was finally passed three days later.
Katalin Cseh, an incumbent Hungarian MEP who negotiated the text of the resolution, told CNN that publication is particularly difficult as MEPs from the two main parliamentary groups oppose it being too hard on Qatar.
“Now that we know what we know now, it is very alarming that my colleagues have pushed back this resolution so strongly. It is worrying that the influence of third party autocrats may have infiltrated our negotiations.”
It will probably be some time before we know exactly what happened and if any lobbying rules were broken. If reforms have to be implemented, the process will no doubt be painful and arduous.
However, activists who have been pushing for anti-corruption reforms for years can find some comfort in the fact that this scandal erupted at just the right moment to garner maximum coverage, something that so often eludes the distant bubble of Brussels politics.