The investigations of the Belgian authorities show a widespread network of corruption and bribery. After many resignations and sackings in the European Parliament, further results of the previous research are becoming clear. Also, not only Morocco and Qatar are said to have tried to gain influence in the EU bodies with money: Statements by the arrested string pullers point to Saudi Arabia and Mauritania.
The European Parliament lifted the immunity of MPs Andrea Cozzolino and Marc Tarabella on Thursday, opening the way for the Belgian judiciary to begin investigations into the two MP’s role in the scandal. According to a parliamentary spokesman, there are currently no further applications from the Brussels judiciary to lift the immunity of other deputies.
Cozzolino and Tarabella are accused of serious crimes including corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization, according to the two immunity waiver reports. The Belgian and Italian MEPs from the SD group continue to deny the allegations. Both elected representatives have already been excluded from the Social Democratic Group for the duration of the criminal investigation.
Tarabella was present at the vote today and, like the vast majority of Parliament, voted to have his own immunity lifted. “I reiterate that I am innocent in this matter and it is now up to the judiciary to question me,” he said after the vote, being “happy” with the vote. EU legislators enjoy immunity from prosecution during their mandate. Removing this protection takes several weeks and involves numerous steps. A spokesman for the Belgian public prosecutor’s office told journalists that local authorities can now treat the “involved persons” like any other Belgian resident.
Brussels has been fraught with anxious talks in recent weeks over who the police may ensnare next after Pier Antonio Panzeri – the former MEP at the center of the scandal who was arrested – closed a plea deal with Belgian federal prosecutors and vowed to tell other names involved.
Tarabella is suspected of accepting bribes of up to €140,000 from Panzeri to hold certain positions in favor of non-EU governments in the European Parliament. He was vice-president of the European Parliament’s Parliamentary Cooperation Committee with the Gulf States before resigning earlier last month.
In the meantime, the history of the previous investigations has also become clearer. Corruption and money laundering by the Gulf state of Qatar were not the starting signal for the Belgian judiciary, but the public prosecutor’s office initially investigated in the orbit of Morocco: The secret service of a “friendly country” is said to have warned its Belgian colleagues from the Sûreté de l’Etat that a criminal organization in Brussels may try to push through Moroccan interests with the help of MEPs. With this assumption, it then became active with his investigations. The service is tasked, in official parlance, with investigating activities that pose a threat to the security of the Kingdom, such as foreign interference in political decision-making processes within Belgium.
The Belgian Minister of Justice has meanwhile confirmed the role of the Sûreté de l’Etat and the involvement of other secret services from abroad. He spoke of a “game changer” for the Belgian security authorities. The successes in the active corruption case are for Belgium what “Sky-ECC” was in the fight against drug trafficking, said the minister. Sky ECC was a supposedly tap-proof communication service that drug dealers liked to use. Because the investigators cracked it in 2021, deliveries to Europe could be intercepted on a large scale, including at the port of Antwerp, Europe’s largest drug hub. The investigation has so shaken up the drug market in Belgium that cartels apparently planned to kidnap the minister responsible.
With these accusations, the Belgian secret service then went to investigating judge Michel Claise, who began his work in July 2022 and finally commissioned the officers from the Anti-Corruption Agency (OCRC) to initiate investigations. According to research, the OCRC had long suspected former MEP Panzeri of working for Qatar and Morocco. Michel Claise also led the Sky ECC investigation and has earned a reputation as a consistent investigator who has always been outspoken in the past. He often accused the Belgian government of not investing enough in the security authorities and of sending prosecutors like David against Goliath, only with a slingshot.
The extent of the bribery scandal in the EU Parliament quickly became clear: According to the investigators, the desert state wanted to polish its image, which had been battered by reports of the sometimes slave-like treatment of workers at the World Cup venues. According to the accused Giorgi, everything should have started in 2018. Panzeri met with Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, then head of Qatar’s national human rights committee and later labor minister, responsible for conditions on the World Cup construction sites. His luck with Panzeri was that he already knew someone who already had an influence network in the European Parliament. In 2019, Panzeri is said to have reached an agreement with Qatar, a few months after leaving the European Parliament.
All of the protagonists in this criminal case apparently knew from the start that it was about more than just lobbying. The way the payment is made speaks for itself. Giorgi, who was also the partner of Kaili, the former Vice President of the European Parliament who is in custody, is said to have got in touch with a person with Palestinian roots in Turkey. He gave him a Belgian phone number to call to get the money. The contact person is said to have been different each time, according to the Italian. He deleted all phone numbers after each transaction so as not to leave any traces. It went like this a maximum of two or three times a year and became more and more exhausting, “that was stressful for me”.
In order to make the money transfer easier, the idea of founding an NGO for receiving money was then conceived. The result was “Fight Impunity”, which claims to be fighting against violations of human rights going unpunished.
In previous interrogations, Giorgi is said to have stated that the Brussels team also worked for Mauritania and Saudi Arabia. Just a week before his arrest, he and Panzeri met the Saudi ambassador in the Belgian embassy in Mauritania. He “wanted information about what was being said about his country in the European Parliament,” says the accused.
Mauritania itself also has “an image problem,” said Giorgi, and that should apparently be fixed. “They hired Panzeri to get advice on how to do that.” The result was a cooperation similar to that with Qatar or Morocco – “just not with the same volume of money”. Giorgi himself apparently rented an apartment to the Mauritanian ambassador and collected 1,500 euros in rent plus 300 euros in additional costs. This “remuneration” came month after month, according to account data by January 2021 at the latest. Since then alone, almost 40,000 euros have been collected, and Panzeri has received an additional 25,000 euros in cash, says Giorgi.
It now remains to be seen whether and how the money is actually linked to influencing political decision-makrts in the European Parliament. If this analysis does not provide enough evidence, the investigation could still fail. Panzeri and Giorgi’s collaboration will be key to the indictment. If the Italians share their knowledge with investigators, it could reveal details of the financial arrangements, the countries involved, the beneficiaries and who else was involved. Panzeri has also agreed to release the names of those he bribed. This could make many politicians nervous!
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