The European Parliament is at the center of a growing corruption scandal after Belgian police seized 600,000 euros in cash and arrested two MEPs as part of an international investigation into allegations that the soccer World Cup host , Qatar, was looking to buy influence.
A Belgian judge charged four unnamed people on Sunday with “participation in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption” after multiple arrests and house searches over the weekend, including the homes of two MEPs and the family of a former MEP. in Italy.
The charges against the MEPs have already led to resignations and the suspension of a parliamentary vote on granting visas to Qatari citizens to travel to the bloc, scheduled for next week.
Parliamentarians have expressed their dismay at the arrests of the four people, and at the related detention of the relatives of a former Italian MEP, who were allegedly offered a holiday worth 100,000 euros by the Qataris. Activists have criticized the parliament’s “culture of impunity”.
The accusations come as Qatar is in the global spotlight, with the World Cup semi-finals and final due to take place over the next week. The matches are the culmination of a tournament the Gulf state had long sought but drew unprecedented scrutiny of its stance on gay rights, its treatment of migrant workers and its use of its wealth to bolster his role in the world.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office said it suspected “third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence the parliament’s decision.”
Prosecutors had previously said Belgian police investigators suspected a “Gulf country” was seeking to influence parliament. An official familiar with the investigation confirmed that the country in question was Qatar.
Doha has denied any allegations of misconduct. “Any association by the Qatari government with the reported claims is unfounded and seriously misinformed,” an official said.
Although Belgian authorities have not identified the suspects, Eva Kaili, vice president of the European Parliament, has been stripped of her duties in the legislature, as well as her membership in PASOK, the Greek socialist party.
Kaili, a former television news presenter, defended Qatar’s human rights record last month in parliament, hailing the country as “a leader in labor rights” for its decision to scrap a migrant worker sponsorship system.
She alleged that other MEPs were seeking to discriminate against Qatar “and accuse everyone who talks to them or gets involved.” [in] corruption, but still, they drink their gasoline.” Kaili did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Italian prosecutors added that Antonio Panzeri, the president of a Brussels-based NGO and a former MEP, had been detained in the Belgian capital, while his wife and daughter had been detained in Bergamo on the basis of a European arrest warrant.
Both Italian women deny the accusations, according to their lawyer. Panzeri did not respond to a request for comment.
Panzeri, then an MEP, was the first person the Qataris approached, according to Italian researchers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several former senior EU officials, including Federica Mogherini, previously the bloc’s foreign policy chief, and France’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, later resigned as honorary board members of Panzeri’s NGO Fight Impunity.
The largest political group in the European parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party, said it was “shocked” by the corruption investigation and “no stone should be left unturned”.
Italian MEP Dino Giarrusso said he and many other lawmakers in Brussels had been contacted by Qatari officials numerous times since 2019. “They hoped to improve the country’s reputation, especially in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup,” Giarrusso said. .
Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, said the EU institutions needed an independent ethics regulator.
“For many decades, parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of (or indeed any) independent ethics oversight,” said its director, former MEP Michiel van Hulten.
Additional reporting by Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens and Simeon Kerr in Dubai
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