While the European Parliament will elect a successor for the ousted Vice President Eva Kaili this Wednesday, the Luxembourg social democrat Marc Angel has the best chances and the President of the House has made initial proposals on how lobbying and corruption can be prevented in the future, the legal investigation of what is probably the biggest scandal in the history of the European Parliament continues.
The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, presented initial proposals to prevent future corruption, bribery and influence-peddling. This catalog was initially discussed internally with the speakers of the nine political groups in Parliament, but implementation is not expected to take place quickly. Insiders assume that this could take months. At the heart of the presentation is a proposal that all MPs, assistants or civil servants be required to disclose with whom they meet when discussing ongoing legislative work, whether or not these meetings take place in parliamentary premises. This would be a significant change – currently only rapporteurs or committee chairs are required to disclose such talks. Based on this proposal, EU officials will carry out spot checks on groups, institutions and NGOs that have to register in the transparency register. Even those who represent non-EU countries must in future be included in the transparency register in order to be able to do lobbying work. But there will not only be more control over MPs, but also over their assistants and parliament officials. These are to be prohibited from holding management positions in NGOs at the same time.
Meanwhile, the legal work-up has also progressed: Former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who is considered a key figure in the scandal surrounding bribes from Qatar, yesterday agreed to cooperate fully with the Belgian judiciary and to testify both about his own misconduct and that of other suspects . With this provision, he is assured that the cooperation will be interpreted as a mitigating sentence. So he must also tell the truth about Eva Kaili, who is suspected of having represented Qatar’s interests as vice-president of parliament for money. Panzeri, according to the statement from the public prosecutor’s office, would only have to go to prison “shortened” in return. He will have to pay a fine and confiscate all of his acquired assets, currently estimated at one million euros. The mitigating regulation is only being used for the second time in the history of the Belgian judiciary and is called “Pentiti” – based on the Italian law of the same name, which rewards the participation of “repentant” people in mafia proceedings.
The Belgian judiciary, but also the European public, can now hope that Panzeri will be forced in his future statements to disclose the full extent of bribery and corruption and to name the politicians at European level who have held out their hands for the benefit of the desert state Qatar: According to the agreement that has now been reached, Panzeri undertakes to provide the investigators with comprehensive information about the modus operandi of his actions, the financial agreements with third countries, the financial structures set up and the beneficiaries. He must testify “as to the involvement of persons known or not yet known in this case, including the identity of the persons whom he admits to have bribed”.
Pier Antonio Panzeri withdrew his request for release from custody on Tuesday. Eva Kaili is still in custody. She denies the accusation of corruption and blames her partner Francesco Giorgi.
But things are not quiet in the European Parliament either: the chairwoman of the Human Rights sub-committee, Maria Arena, has resigned from her post. If she hadn’t done this, the conference of parliamentary group leaders would have initiated a formal vote-out procedure, as was the case recently against Vice-President Eva Kaili. Arena is also connected with the scandal of influence by Qatar and Morocco, which has shaken parliament for a month.
In May, Arena attended a conference on human rights in Doha, and she had the Emir of Qatar pay for her flights and hotel. This information only became public last week, the committee chair had not reported it to the parliamentary administration. First, she blamed her secretary for the breach of the rules and sent an email to her group members to ask for understanding. But nobody wanted to raise that anymore. Because the authority of the 56-year-old politician from Belgium had already been shaken in the past few days when new details from the investigations became known.
“I declare in no uncertain terms that I am in no way involved in this scandal,” Arena said in her resignation statement. The Belgian authorities did not ask for her parliamentary immunity to be waived, nor did it search her office or home. Her case is also important because of her role as chair of a sub-committee that has been at the center of Qatari interest and her proximity to Pier Antonio Panzeri. Arena took over the chairmanship of the committee from the main suspect Panzeri. Both are politically on the left edge of their group. Arena invited Panzeri’s NGO “Fight Impunity” to present an annual report on the State of “Impunity in the World”. With Panzeri she appeared several times at discussion events. In mid-November last year, she chaired a hearing on the status of human rights in Qatar. When the corruption scandal became public in December last year and investigators also searched the committee’s secretariat, Arena stated that it had nothing to do with the case but would not chair any more meetings until further notice. When asked about her relationship with Panzeri, she replied that it was a “professional friendship”.
Various research by Belgian journalists is now said to show that the two had an affair that lasted for years, at least until 2019, and probably beyond. “You had to be blind not to see it,” said one of them. “They got together in the morning and they went out together in the evening.” In the committee, the relationship was an “open secret”, reported one MEP. Arena is divorced, Panzeri is married. Public prosecutor investigations also show that Panzeri and Arena had 389 telephone contacts in nine months. “Maria Arena benefits from the advice and influence of Panzeri, while useing Arena’s position as President of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in Parliament to exert influence,” the prosecutor wrote.
How this happened in concrete terms can be seen at the hearing on the human rights situation in Qatar, which took place in Parliament on November 14. Representatives from Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Organization (ILO) were invited together with the International Trade Union Federation, whose general secretary Luca Visentini is now also one of the accused. He had accepted money from Panzeri to fund his campaign for that post. But the most important – and most surprising – participant was Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, Qatar’s labor minister. The deputies only found out about his visit six days beforehand, when they received the agenda. Arena had personally invited him.
In fact, his appearance had been prepared for a long time, as “Le Soir” reconstructed on the basis of investigation documents. Accordingly, Panzeri and Al-Marri met a month earlier in a luxury hotel in Brussels to define a strategy. Panzeri left the meeting with a bag in hand. According to Eva Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, another suspect who was present and always translated into English for Panzeri, “payment in cash” was made. When the minister from Qatar sat in front of the MEPs, Panzeri wrote down the opening statement and answers to possible questions.
Giorgi had prepared the Social Democrat MEPs with a benevolent lecture on the situation in Qatar. He sat in the room during the hearing and typed a lot on his mobile phone: messages with Panzeri, which the investigators read along. MEP Tarabella should say that he didn’t see the interest in human rights four years ago when the World Cup was held in Russia, Panzeri suggested. Seven minutes later, the deputy spoke up and ranted about the hypocrisy of his colleagues. Arena then took the floor and asked the minister to name European companies violating Qatari rules – shifting the focus in Al-Marri’s favor.
The hearing then fed into a parliamentary resolution on the human rights situation in Qatar. It was decided when the World Cup was already underway and attracted a lot of attention. In it, FIFA was showered with criticism, while the Emirate got off comparatively well. MEPs ‘deplore’ the deaths of thousands of migrant workers on World Cup construction sites while they ‘strongly condemn’ the involvement of European companies in violations. They have repeatedly “welcomed” reforms by the emirate and its cooperation with the EU on human rights, particularly Al-Marri’s efforts. With today’s knowledge, it reads for long stretches as if Panzeri had edited the text.
In fact, that was the job of another Social Democrat faction official. He wrote the motion for a resolution, which was negotiated in just two days. The other groups asked him to do so after the Social Democrats had tipped the scales in the negotiations and had rejected a number of critical amendments from the Left and Greens. Whether Arena played a role in the background is uncertain. However, the Social Democrats investigated the role of the parliamentary group employee more closely when the scandal became known. Shortly before Christmas they released the assistant.
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