The European Parliament is at the center of a spreading corruption scandal after Belgian police seized 600,000 euros in cash and detained two MEPs as part of an international investigation into allegations that World Cup hosts Qatar sought to buy influence.
A Belgian judge charged four unnamed people on Sunday with “participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption” after several arrests and house searches over the weekend, including those of two MEPs and the family of a former MEP in Italy.
The charges against the MEPs have already led to their resignations and the suspension of the parliamentary vote on granting Qatari citizens visa-free travel to the bloc, which is scheduled for next week.
The parliamentarians expressed shock at the arrest of the four – and the related detention of family members of a former member of the European Parliament, who was allegedly offered leave worth €100,000 by the Qataris. Activists criticized the “culture of impunity” in parliament.
Allegations come Qatar It is the focus of attention of the world, as the semi-final matches of the World Cup will be held next week. The matches are the culmination of a tournament the Gulf state has long sought, but it has imposed unprecedented scrutiny over its stance on gay rights, treatment of migrant workers and the use of its wealth to enhance its role in the world.
The Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office said it suspected “third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European Parliament of having paid large sums of money or made large gifts to influence the Parliament’s decision”.
Prosecutors had previously said that Belgian police investigators suspected a “gulf state” of seeking to influence parliament. An official familiar with the investigation confirmed that the country in question was Qatar.
Doha has rejected any allegations of misconduct. “Any association of the Qatari government with the reported allegations is unfounded and seriously misleading,” said an official.
While the Belgian authorities have not named the suspects, Eva Kaili, the vice-president of the European Parliament, has been stripped of her duties in the legislature as well as her membership in PASOK, Greece’s socialist party.
Kylie, a former TV news anchor, defended Qatar’s human rights record last month in parliament, praising the country as “the frontrunner on workers’ rights” for its decision to abolish the sponsorship system for migrant workers.
It alleged that other members of the European Parliament were seeking to discriminate against Qatar “and accuse anyone who speaks to them or engages with them [in] Corruption, but they still take their gas.” Kylie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Italian prosecutors added that Antonio Panziri, head of a Brussels-based non-governmental organization and former member of the European Parliament, is being held in the Belgian capital, while his wife and daughter are being held in Bergamo based on a European arrest warrant.
The two Italian women deny the allegations, according to their lawyer. Panziri did not respond to a request for comment.
Panziri, then a member of the European Parliament, was the first person the Qataris contacted, according to the Italian investigators, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several former EU officials, including Federica Mogherini, formerly the bloc’s foreign policy chief, and former French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, have resigned from the honorary board of Panzieri’s NGO, Fighting Impunity.
The centre-right European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, said it was “shocked” about the corruption investigation and that “no stone should be left unturned”.
Italian MP Dino Giarusso said that Qatari officials had contacted him and several other lawmakers in Brussels several times since 2019. “They were hoping to improve the country’s reputation, especially in the run-up to the soccer World Cup,” Giaruso said.
Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, said EU institutions needed an independent ethics regulator.
“Over many decades, Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a mixture of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) moral oversight,” said Michel van Holten, its director, former MEP Michel van Holten.
Additional reporting by Eleni Varviziotti in Athens and Simon Kerr in Dubai