On Friday evening Eva Kaili, vice-President of the European Parliament, was arrested by the Belgian police on suspicion of corruption. Her father was caught with a “suitcase full of banknotes” when he tried to get away. During a search of the politician’s private home, “several other bags filled with banknotes” were found. That was enough to arrest the deputy. Parliamentary immunity does not protect MPs if there is an urgent suspicion of a crime and there is a risk of collusion. She was expelled from her party PASOK on Friday evening, and her membership in the Social Democratic group of the European Parliament was suspended. On Saturday evening, all powers and duties as Vice President were withdrawn from her, as a spokesman for the European Parliament announced.
In the course of the corruption scandal in the European Parliament, the Greek authorities have frozen all the assets of the arrested Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili. “Bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, companies and all other assets are affected,” said the head of the Greek anti-money laundering authority, Haralambos Vourliotis, today. The measure also applies to Kaili’s relatives.
Kaili is the most prominent, but not the only accused in this corruption case, which caused waves in Brussels and could grow into a crisis of confidence in the entire institution. After house searches in at least sixteen different places in the Belgian capital, including offices in the European Parliament, together with raids in Italy, five other people were first interrogated by the police and taken into custody for the time being. Arrest warrants were issued against four of them, as the Belgian federal prosecutor announced on Sunday. They remain in custody, two people have been released. According to a report in the Belgian newspaper “Le Soir”, the former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, an Italian social democrat, has to remain in prison in addition to Kaili. He is President of the NGO “Fight Against Impunity”. A suitcase with 600,000 euros in cash is said to have been confiscated in his private home. Francesco G., Kaili’s partner and parliamentary employee of the Social Democrats, as well as a Brussels lobbyist, about whom nothing further is known, also remain in custody. Released were father Kailis and Luca Visentini, recently appointed general secretary of the “International Trade Union Confederation”. Several offices of assistants in the European Parliament were raided and sealed. On Saturday evening, police also searched the private home of another Socialist MEP, Marc Tarabella. He had recently defended Qatar against criticism.
The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for prosecuting organized crime and terrorism in Belgium. According to its own statements, the body has suspected for months that Qatar is trying to influence the political and economic decisions of the EU Parliament. Substantial sums of money or gifts in kind are said to have been distributed to persons in Parliament who held a political or strategic position.
Kaili’s speech in Parliament raised concerns
Eva Kaili’s speech on November 21 was not in line with the Parliament’s vast majority opinion on Qatar and the World Cup. The parliament prepared a resolution and the overwhelming part of the house condemned this tournament. The left side of the House in particular spoke of “shame” given the human rights violations in Qatar. But not the social democrat Eva Kaili.
The World Cup is proof of how sports diplomacy “can achieve a historic transformation of a country,” she said, and the reforms there had “inspired the Arab world.” She spoke of strengthened workers’ rights and minimum wages, she also acknowledged the emirate’s mediating role in Afghanistan and other major conflicts. The West should stop lecturing the Qataris, she demanded, then she came to the climax of the speech: Eva Kaili complained about it that anyone who speaks to the Qataris would be immediately suspected of corruption by some naggers.
The question now is how far the Qataris’ connections reached into the Socialist Group, in any case there is great mistrust in other groups in Parliament. During the parliamentary debate about the World Cup, some observers noticed how strangely indecisive some social democrats were dealing with the topic. According to MPs, Kaili has urged members of her faction to vote against the resolution condemning Qatar – or not to put it on the agenda in the first place. There are already calls to stop all dossiers in the European Parliament that deal with Qatar and other Gulf states. This includes visa facilitation for Qatar and Kuwait, which the Commission had proposed and which was approved in principle by the responsible parliamentary committee at the beginning of December.
Qatar denying involvement
“The searches were carried out as part of a wide-ranging investigation into suspected involvement in a criminal organization, corruption and money laundering,” the Belgian public prosecutor said. The investigations are overseen by an investigating magistrate who specializes in financial crimes. Apparently they’ve been running for four months. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office is only responsible for the most serious offences. Investigators suspected “a Gulf state of attempting to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament” by “paying significant amounts of money or offering substantial gifts to third parties who hold a strategically important position in the European Parliament”.
Qatar is not mentioned by name. However, Belgian media reported that they had been confirmed by well-informed sources that it was actually the host of the World Cup. There was also no official statement from the leadership in Doha. On Sunday, the emirate rejected all allegations of wrongdoing. “Any association by the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and based on false information,” the official statement said. The State of Qatar works through inter-institutional contacts and operates “in full compliance with international law and regulations”. Of course, there are considerable doubts about this, just as far as the awarding of the World Cup to the Gulf state is concerned. Investigations are therefore underway in the United States.
The network in Brussels
Eva Kaili, a former TV presenter, was first elected to the European Parliament in 2014. It was only in January of this year that she was elected to one of 14 deputy posts. Parliament stripped her of all her posts on Saturday. She was a member of the Industry, Research and Energy Committee and represented President Roberta Metsola (European People’s Party) on Middle East issues. The Social Democratic group in the European Parliament is now in shock. She canceled Eva Kaili’s membership on Friday evening, as did her Greek party Pasok.
It is striking that apart from Kaili and her father, all suspects are Italians. Kaili’s partner Francesco G. – both have a two-year-old daughter together – was a parliamentary assistant to MEP Andrea Cozzolino from the Italian Social Democrats, who is not being investigated in the current affair. Cozzolino, who began his political career with the Italian Communists, comes from Naples and has been in the European Parliament since 2009. In 2011 he surprisingly won the primaries for the centre-left alliance in the mayoral elections in his hometown. However, the result had to be annulled because the anti-mafia authorities had uncovered extensive vote-buying for Cozzolino by the Lo Russo Camorra clan. However, the scandal surrounding the 2011 mayoral elections in Naples did not stand in the way of Cozzolino’s re-election as a list candidate for the Social Democrats for further mandates in the EU Parliament in 2014 and 2019.
Before he worked for Cozzolino, Francesco G. had worked in the EU Parliament for the Italian MP Panzeri, who in turn is one of the main suspects in the current corruption scandal. Panzeri is said to have recommended his colleague Francesco G., who specialized in EU relations with the Maghreb countries, to his party comrade Cozzolino after leaving the EU Parliament in 2019. After leaving the EU Parliament, of which he had been a member since 2004, he took over the presidency of the non-governmental organization “Fight against Impunity”, which Francesco G. founded in September 2019.
Due to a European arrest warrant, Panzeri’s wife and daughter were also arrested and interrogated on Saturday. His wife Maria C. and their daughter Silvia P., who works as a lawyer in Milan, are under house arrest in the family home near Brescia. Italian media, citing investigative documents and wiretapped telephone calls, reported that the family spent 100,000 euros on a tropical vacation last year. This year, however, she would have wanted to “limit” her expenses for the Christmas vacation to 9,000 euros per person.
The European Parliament and its stand on Qatar
Just at the end of last month, the European Parliament passed the resolution on Qatar that acknowledged reforms in the country, but also clearly identified deficits – especially in the area of labor law and in dealing with guest workers. The resolution was particularly harsh with FIFA. There is “unbridled, systemic and deep-rooted corruption,” it said. Parliament called for the criminal investigations to be continued, and the European football associations should open their archives for this purpose.
It is also clearly stated that the awarding of the tournament to Qatar in 2010 “was accompanied by credible allegations of bribery and corruption”. Eva Kaili had nothing to do with the negotiations on this text. But, it is reported that Kaili had asked individual MEPs to vote against. Nevertheless, the text was adopted with a large majority; a roll-call vote was not required. Direct attempts by the Qatari government to exert influence also apparently remained unsuccessful.
The Qatar Friendship Group in the European Parliament includes a dozen MEPs from almost all parliamentary groups, they see themselves as friends of Qatar and probably allow themselves to be invited to trips to the emirate. The chairman of the informal association, Liberal MP José Ramón Bauzá Díaz, was received by the Qatari foreign minister just last week. Kaili is not part of the group. The official Qatar delegation of the parliament, the regional Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (PCC) wanted to travel to the emirate at the beginning of November – as usual financed by the parliament. However, the trip was canceled by Qatar. The parliament building is currently being renovated, it was said as a reason. However, this did not stand in the way of an official visit by Vice President Kaili. She was in Doha in late October, early November. As the office responsible for the Arab states, she met the most important persons of the Qatari leadership: the emir, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for energy, the head of government, the minister for labor and the speaker of the parliament. The visit was also reported in the Qatari press in accordance with the importance of the people they spoke to. However, Kaili’s visit and the images and headlines he produced were not perceived as exceptional in Doha.
A visa-free entry to the EU has been discussed for a long time. The EU Commission has come out in favor of allowing Qatari citizens to enter the EU without a visa and stay there for a maximum of ninety days. After the EU states, the responsible committee of the EU Parliament also voted in favor of the visa exemption with a clear majority on December 1. Kaili also voted in favour. This would have allowed negotiations between Parliament and the Member States to begin. Now, however, the project is again in question. Greens, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have called for no action to be taken before the allegations against Kaili have been clarified. A decision to this effect is expected to be taken as early as this Monday. A trip that the Foreign Affairs Committee wanted to take to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the week before Christmas is also about to be canceled.
How intense is Qatar’s lobbying in the West?
Many questions remain unanswered: How extensive is the network around Kaili? How far does Qatar’s influence in Brussels go and are other EU institutions possibly affected? “I’m almost afraid that we are not yet at the end of the investigation,” said German MEP Daniel Freund. It is also unclear whether other autocratic states have EU officials or politicians on their payroll so that they can secretly represent the interests of the countries concerned in Brussels, the central place of European legislation.
According to Italian media reports, ex-MP Panzeri and his family are said to have been involved in a “transport of monetary gifts” that they received in Morocco from the Moroccan ambassador in Poland. There is also reference to wiretapped conversations, with Panzeri’s wife Dolores Colleoni complaining in one case that her account had been debited with expenses of 35,000 euros for a holiday. Panzeri replied that he would soon find “the other solution” for the issue.
The organization Transparency International explained that these were not isolated cases and spoke of a “culture of impunity” in connection with the EU Parliament. The Christian Democrat MEP Dennis Radtke called for the transparency rules and the lobby register in Brussels to be reviewed.
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