Police on Monday launched a new wave of searches against politicians in Brussels for alleged corruption involving Qatari interests, in a scandal that threatens to trash democracy in the European Union.
“The European Parliament,” said its president, Roberta Metsola, during a session in Strasbourg on Monday, “is under attack.”
The focal point of this attack, for now, is the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group in Parliament. In Brussels, police raided the parliamentary office of Greek MEP Eva Kaili, who is currently in a prison cell awaiting her court appearance, scheduled for Wednesday.
Meanwhile, her colleagues in Strasbourg expelled her from the S&D group as her fellow MEPs prepared to strip her of her title as vice-president.
Several other S&D members – not directly involved but under scrutiny for their ties to the accused and their advocacy on behalf of Qatar – have also agreed to step down from key assignments, including MEP Marie Arena as chairwoman of the sub – Parliament’s Human Rights Committee.
In total, the Belgian police recorded six arrests (although two individuals, Kaili’s father and union boss Luca Visentini, were released) and searched 19 private homes. The cops’ loot includes €600,000 from a private individual, “several hundred thousand euros” from a suitcase stolen from a Brussels hotel and €150,000 from Kaili’s apartment. His family’s assets in Greece have been frozen.
After blocking access to computer equipment over the weekend, police said they recovered the data on Monday. In addition to Kaili’s office, two assistant offices were also marked “No Entry” on Monday afternoon. One labeled F. Giorgi – Kaili’s partner, also under arrest – and the other labeled E. Foulon and G. Meroni. The latter is a former assistant to Pier Antonio Panzeri, the former MEP at the center of the alleged scandal.
“European democracy is under attack,” Metsola told the plenary, promising to open an internal investigation.
The call for an investigation was picked up by MEPs in Strasbourg and across the bloc. “Europe’s credibility is at stake,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
For the watchdogs, however, the threat to Europe’s credibility has always been clear. The scandal is not an attack but “self-inflicted damage”, tweeted Good Lobby founder Alberto Alemanno in response to Metsola’s speech. “The European Parliament and most of its members have always resisted stricter integrity rules and an effective enforcement system.”
The EU’s transparency register is full of loopholes and voluntary elements: the Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, for example, hosted Panzeri’s NGO, Fight Impunity, to produce reports, even if it was not in the transparency register.
Based on its activities, Fight Impunity should have been listed in the database, the registry secretariat said in an email. But since they are not legally required to register, there is no way to punish them for violating the registry’s code of conduct.
Similarly, a proposal for an independent EU ethics committee has been blocked at the Commission. Vice President for Transparency Věra Jourová cited legal obstacles and lack of interest in an ethics body that would apply to all institutions and effectively have enforcement power.
On Monday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed a new determination to create a comprehensive watchdog. “It is very important to have not only strict rules, but the same rules covering all EU institutions and not allowing any exemptions,” she told reporters.
But despite all the rhetoric about protecting trust and promoting transparency in EU institutions, senior officials have resisted early opportunities to put it into practice. Commission spokesperson Dana Spinant quickly shut down questions when reporters tried to pressure von der Leyen over tweets from Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas in which he had welcomed the reforms of Qatar’s work before the World Cup.
It was a similar (virtual) scene in Strasbourg, where a spokesperson for the Parliament refused to answer questions journalists during an online press conference.
“Our path to open, free and democratic societies is under attack,” Metsola said in Strasbourg. “The enemies of democracy, for whom the very existence of this Parliament is a threat, will stop at nothing. These malicious actors, linked to autocratic third countries, would have armed NGOs, trade unions, individuals, assistants and members of the European Parliament with the aim of controlling our processes. »
In Budapest, Viktor Orbán, who leads a country that the European Parliament has declared “no longer a democracy”, seized his moment. Hungarian Prime Minister tweeted an early morning greeting to parliament, complete with a photo of former world leaders in stitches. The caption: “And then they said… The EP is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary.”
Pieter Haeck, Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif, Clothilde Goujard, Nektaria Stamouli, Gabriel Rinaldi, Wilhelmine Preussen and Suzanne Lynch contributed to the report.