What is the Qatar European Parliament corruption scandal and who is Eva Kaili?

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BRUSSELS – The de facto capital of the European Union has been rocked by explosive allegations that World Cup host Qatar bribed current and former European Parliament officials to try to influence decisions at the highest level.

After at least 16 raids across Brussels on Friday, Belgian authorities seized more than $630,000 in cash and electronic equipment while holding six people for questioning. On Sunday a Belgian judge indicted four of them, saying they were suspected of money laundering, corruption and participation in a criminal organization on behalf of a “Gulf state”.

Belgian media identified the state as Qatar and reported that the accused included a Vice-President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, and her partner, Parliamentary Assistant Francesco Giorgi, and a former Member of the European Parliament, Pier Antonio Panzeri. Other people reportedly involved in the investigation are the president of a Brussels-based trade union and an unnamed Italian national.

The European authorities have yet to confirm the affected country. Qatar has denied wrongdoing.

Within the EU institutions, this is described as the biggest scandal in recent memory. Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said the answer would “put Europe’s credibility to the test”.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Eva Kaili and what is she accused of?

Before Eva Kaili, 44, was charged in this case and removed from her official post, she was a Greek Member of the European Parliament and one of its Vice-Presidents.

The vice-presidents can deputize for the president of the institution when necessary, including presiding at the monthly plenary meetings where important decisions are voted on. You can also have a say in administrative, personnel and organizational matters.

But their power is limited. The European Parliament has 14 Vice-Presidents and 705 Members. It is also the weakest of the European Union’s three key institutions.

Belgian police arrested Kaili – known in Greece as a former news anchor – and accused her of participation in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption, according to Agence France-Presse.

The consequences were immediate: her group in the European Parliament, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), suspended her, as did her political party in Greece, the Pasok Movement for Change. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola suspended Kaili from her “powers, duties and responsibilities” as Vice President on Saturday.

Police officers found sacks of cash during a raid on Kaili’s home on Friday, according to Belgian newspaper L’Echo. They also questioned Kaili’s father, who was found with a suitcase full of cash leaving a Sofitel hotel in Brussels. Inspectors suspect he was briefed on the upcoming police operation, L’Echo reported, citing police sources.

How is Qatar allegedly involved?

Belgian prosecutors suspect “that large sums of money were paid or substantial gifts offered to third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European Parliament in order to influence the Parliament’s decision”. Belgian news outlets have widely reported that the “Gulf country” suspected of being behind the plan is Qatar, although EU authorities have not named it.

Kaili recently traveled to Qatar, where he met with Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, although a previous trip organized for a European Parliament delegation was postponed by Qatari officials with short notice, Politico reported.

Back in Brussels, she took part in a vote by the European Parliament’s Justice and Home Affairs Committee, of which she is not a member, to back a proposal allowing visa-free travel for Qataris and Kuwaitis within the EU’s Schengen area, according to Politico.

She also described the country as a “frontrunner in labor rights” in a November 21 debate over alleged human rights abuses in the construction of World Cup infrastructure. At the end of this debate, the European Parliament condemned the deaths of thousands of migrant workers building eight stadiums, an airport expansion, a new subway, many hotels and miles of new roads. The European body criticized both Qatar and the football association FIFA.

The Qatari government has denied any involvement in the alleged corruption scheme, which has grabbed headlines as the World Cup moves into its finals and the country seeks to present itself as a forward-looking and key geopolitical player.

For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a show of force

“The State of Qatar categorically rejects any attempts to link it to allegations of wrongdoing,” Qatar’s representation to the European Union said in a tweet on Sunday. “Any association by the Government of Qatar with the reported claims is unfounded and seriously misinformed.”

What does this mean for European politics?

The indictments raise new questions about corruption and interference in the European Union’s institutions, scrutinize current and former officials and are likely to lead to calls for an overhaul of institutional oversight.

In Brussels, the revelations were met with shock but not surprise, with EU monitors and pundits noting long-standing concerns about the bloc’s institutions, particularly the European Parliament.

“Whatever its ultimate outcome, the ‘corruption’ scandal in Qatar has exposed an uncomfortable truth that is already obvious to most Europeans. Money buys influence in the EU,” wrote Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris, in an opinion piece for Politico Europe.

“While this may be the most egregious case of alleged corruption the European Parliament has seen in many years, it is not an isolated case,” Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU, said in a statement.

The European Parliament “has allowed a culture of impunity to develop” thanks to lax financial rules and the lack of an independent ethics oversight, van Hulten said, adding that MEPs have blocked attempts to change this. He called on the European Commission to publish its “long-delayed proposal to create an independent EU ethics agency with investigative and enforcement powers”.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has called for the establishment of such a body, but the official charged with it has conceded he will likely lack the ability to investigate or enforce.

On Monday von der Leyen called the allegations against Kaili “very serious”. Josep Borrell, head of the bloc’s foreign affairs and security department, said they were “very concerning”.

For now, the scandal is a gift to the EU’s critics, particularly leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban, who regularly slam the bloc for criticizing democratic shortcomings in EU countries.

On Monday morning, Orban’s Twitter account posted a meme this showed a group of men laughing hysterically saying, “And then they said that [European Parliament] is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary”.

Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi was also arrested and charged, his phone confiscated by Belgian law enforcement, according to Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

The European Parliament lists Giorgi as accredited assistant to Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, who belongs to the same political group as Kaili and chairs the delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries (North West Africa). Giorgi describes himself on LinkedIn as a “political advisor in the field of human rights, EU foreign policy with an extensive network of contacts with parliamentarians, politicians, EU institutions, NGOs and diplomats”.

Giorgi describes himself as the founder of Brussels-based Global The non-profit human rights organization Fight Impunity, whose president Pier Antonio Panzeri is also implicated in the corruption investigation.

Panzeri, 67, was a Member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2009. Among other things, he headed the delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries (DMAG) as a member of the S&D group. He founded Fight Impunity in 2019 and now serves as its President.

According to Le Soir, Belgian investigators suspect Panzeri of leading a criminal organization to use money and gifts to influence decision-making in the European Parliament on behalf of the Qatar government.

On Friday, Italian police arrested Panzeri’s wife and daughter, who were the subject of a European arrest warrant, according to Politico and Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

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