On Monday in Strasbourg, Roberta Metsola could be seen blowing the whistle in defense of freedom. "Make no mistake, colleagues, the European Parliament, is under attack," she said. "European democracy is under attack."
The center-right Christian Democrat politician from Malta offered a somewhat nebulous description of who those enemies of democracy actually are. "Malign actors linked to autocratic third countries," she said, "have allegedly weaponized NGOs, unions, individuals, assistants and members of the European Parliament in an effort to subdue our processes."
Yet the deputies in the unusually well-filled plenary hall actually knew full well who the parliamentary president was talking about. Contrary to what Metsola may have suggested, though, the enemy doesn't actually come from the outside. The enemy is within their own ranks.
Parliamentarians have been up in arms since the release of a press release by the Belgian prosecutor's office last Friday. The case involves investigations into corruption, money laundering and membership in a criminal organization. The focus is on former and current members of parliament and on staff members, and the trail reaches all the way to the top levels of parliament. The Greek center-left Social Democrat Eva Kaili is one of Metsola's 14 vice presidents and, so far, the most prominent suspect in the scandal.
1.5 Million Euros in Cash
In Brussels, investigators have thus far seized nearly 1.5 million euros in cash. Police released photos showing suitcases, briefcases and plastic bags stuffed with bank notes – images all too familiar from mafia movies.
Kaili and three arrested men, including her partner Francesco Giorgi, allegedly received bribes from a Gulf state, likely Qatar, in exchange for favors. Giorgi has apparently confessed, according to media reports. Kaili, through her lawyer, has denied any wrongdoing. The Qatari government also denies being involved in the illegal activities.
Cash seized in Brussels during the investigationFoto: epa
The incident is a disaster for the European Parliament. Already, European lawmakers found themselves facing accusations of being overpaid and doing too little. The corruption allegations are likely to deepen existing prejudices that everyone in the European Union is just looking for handouts.
A climate of mistrust has spread in Brussels. So far, only Social Democrats are among the accused, but rumors are circulating about other cases in other parties in the parliament. That's likely the reason that there has been a conspicuous absence of direct criticism against the Social Democrats. "I expect more to come to light in the investigation," says Jens Geier, head of the SPD group in the European Parliament.
Can Qatar Still Be a Partner?
The case is also sensitive for the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, and for the German government. Europe needs oil and gas from the Gulf states, yet relations were already strained because of Western criticism surrounding the World Cup in Qatar. Can a country that wants to buy influence over democratic processes be a partner for Europe?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned on Wednesday against calling all relations with Qatar into question. The corruption allegations are "an issue of their own," he said on the margins of the recent EU-ASEAN summit in Brussels. That's also the view held by the European Commission.
Whether that line can be maintained depends on what investigators with the Belgian prosecutor's office manage to turn up. The first raids were quickly followed by others, including in Italy. Investigators searched a total of 19 private apartments and premises in the European Parliament. Belgian investigators said the IT technology of 10 parliamentary staff members had also been "frozen" to ensure that no data relevant to the investigation disappeared.
In addition to Kaili and her partner, justice officials also placed Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of the European Parliament, in pre-trial detention. He heads the non-governmental organization Fight Impunity, which also appears to be involved in the affair. Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, the Italian secretary general of the NGO No Peace without Justice, has been released pending trial, but is required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet.
Kaili denies any wrongdoing. Through her lawyer, she told the Greek TV station Skai that the money found in her apartment belonged to neither her nor her partner Giorgi. "Ms. Kaili asked her partner what the money was for," the lawyer said. He added that her partner had replied that the money belonged to someone else. "Ms. Kaili responded by saying that she did not allow money that belonged to someone else to be kept in their shared apartment." Giorgi has confessed his own involvement and claims that Kaili was not involved.
The question remains open as to why the vice president of parliament would have been bribed with money to the tune of six- or seven figures? The 44-year-old Greek politician is far removed from the central levers of power in Brussels. Based on what is known, decisions that would justify such a large sum cannot be influenced by her, let alone be made single-handedly.
Former European Parliament Vice Presient Kaili with Qatar Labor Minister Samikh Al Marri during a visit to the country.Foto: Twitter / Ministry of Labour Qatar / REUTERS
However, it is also clear that Kaili has campaigned energetically on Qatar's behalf. During a debate in parliament four weeks ago, speaking of the World Cup in Qatar, she said the tournament is "proof, in reality, of how sport diplomacy can bring about a historic transformation of a country with reforms that have inspired the Arab world." And yet, she complained, some members of parliament have "accused anyone who talks to them or engages" with the Qataris of "corruption."
At the time, many parliamentarians thought her choice of words seemed a bit strange. Today, they appear in a different light altogether.
Shortly thereafter, an incident involving the planned visa-free travel to Europe for citizens of Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Ecuador raised eyebrows. In mid-November, seven executions took place in Kuwait as European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for "promoting the European way of life," was on a visit to the country. It was a clear affront, and prompted the group of parliamentarians overseeing the visa issue to then discuss making the suspension of the death penalty a condition for granting visa-free travel to the EU for the four countries.
Kaili intervened, even though she was not a member of the negotiating team. According to the head of the team, Green Party politician Erik Marquardt, the Greek national wanted Qatar to be exempted from the rule. When that didn't work, he claims, she suggested removing Kuwait from the negotiations and moving forward with the other countries. "It's obvious she wanted to get Qatar visa-free travel as quickly as possible," Marquardt says.
But is that sufficient to explain the amount of money allegedly paid in bribes? Kaili, who has since been stripped of her vice presidency and expelled from her party and party group, didn't have much influence in parliament. The decision on visa-free travel also would have been made without her. Parliament postponed making that decision indefinitely after the allegations emerged.
Social Democrat Kaili, a former TV presenter, has been considered out of place in her parliamentary group. On important issues, such as the election of a new secretary general for the parliament, she voted with the conservatives. Her political career in Greece had also stalled.
Fears of Other Cases
Fears are growing in the European Parliament that the affair could now spread. It has since emerged that Morocco also reportedly tried to buy decisions in the European Parliament. The files from the investigation indicate that Panzeri was at the center of the dealings.
The skyline of DohaFoto: Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP
According to documents obtained by DER SPIEGEL, his wife and daughter allegedly accepted "gifts" from Abderrahim Atmoun, Morocco's ambassador to Poland. What they didn't know, though, is that investigators had intercepted their conversations, for example when they talked about a credit card they had received from "the giant." Also at issue was a short Christmas holiday valued at 100,000 euros.
Panzeri and Atmoun did not respond to questions. Angelo De Riso, the lawyer representing Panzeri's wife and daughter, said his clients knew nothing about the alleged incidents and had nothing to do with them, according to media reports.
The group connected with Panzeri also included Luca Visentini, the temporarily detained general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). He had also spoken out positively about the improvement of workers' rights in Qatar. During his time as general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Visentini attracted attention above all for his unconventional approach to money.
To finance his campaign for the ITUC job, he had agreed to pay for the travel and hotel expenses of his campaign trips abroad himself. ETUC was only supposed to advance him the money. When Visentini repaid the expenses of around 13,000 euros a few weeks ago, colleagues were surprised that he paid the sum in cash, in two installments, with the bills placed in envelopes. "It was quite astonishing," says one official involved in the matter.
Also because Belgium only allows cash payments of up to 3,000 euros. ETUC has now commissioned anti-corruption experts to clarify the matter. The aim is to "provide any information that is useful to the Belgian authorities," ETUC Acting General Secretary Esther Lynch told DER SPIEGEL.
International unions also plan to address the case at a meeting next week. Even if some unions, including German ones, are calling for swift action, it isn't yet clear whether Visentini will have to vacate his post or not. As long as the allegations haven't been satisfactorily clarified, "there is no alternative to a suspension," states a letter from the leaders of Germany's DGB labor union to the international federation.
The European Parliament is now frantically trying to save its own reputation. On Thursday, deputies passed a resolution strongly condemning Qatari influence peddling and announcing tougher anti-corruption measures as well as a committee of inquiry.
If Qatar's involvement in the affair is confirmed, it could also be damaging for the country. For example, it could threaten an air traffic agreement with the EU that would be extremely lucrative for Qatar. But Ismail Ertug, the Social Democrats' transport policy coordinator says he see no evidence that any votes have been bought on that issue. Still, it's questionable whether members of the European Parliament will green light the deal, even if all 27 EU member states sign off on the treaty. So far, only six have done so.
Air Traffic Agreement on the Brink
"As it stands now, I doubt that I will be able to agree to the agreement politically," Ertug says. Jan-Christoph Oetjen, the transport policy coordinator for the business-friendly Free Democratic Party in the European Parliament, expressed similar views. If the allegations against Qatar are confirmed, he says, "the agreement cannot remain as it is."
The decision on lifting visa requirements has also been delayed. The issue has to "go back to committee," said Parliament President Metsola. It's possible the visa agreement could even die there. "If the accusations against Qatar are true, it would be a significant attack on our democracy that must have consequences," says Marquardt, a member of the Green Party. "Then there can't be any visa waiver."
Economic relations between the EU and Qatar could also suffer. According to Bernd Lange, the head of the European Parliament's Foreign Trade Committee, "all activities will now be examined particularly thoroughly and assessed differently in terms of necessity than for other partners." However, Lange is doubtful that stricter rules alone will be enough to prevent these kinds of corruption scandals in the future. "In this case, there was criminal energy behind it," he says.
Hannah Neumann, a member of the Green Party in the European Parliament says she said "no" to a free ticket to this year's World Cup in Qatar.Foto: Pierre Vachaudez
In any case, attempts to exert influence usually proceed more subtly than by handing over paper bags full of cash. Hannah Neumann, an EU parliamentarian with the Green Party and chair of parliament's delegation to the Arabian Peninsula, has reported that she was offered a flight to the World Cup, including a VIP ticket. She says she politely declined.
It's a method that other authoritarian governments also like to use. For example, a few years ago, the Azerbaijani regime tried to persuade members of Germany's Bundestag and other European parliaments to burnish the country's image through luxury trips and well-paid posts, a form of influence eventually dubbed "caviar diplomacy."
Qatar also has high-ranking advocates in Berlin. Peter Ramsauer, a member of the Bundestag with the conservative Christian Social Union party, also serves as president of the German-Arab Chamber of Commerce (GHORFA) which also represents Qatari business interests. According to the Bundestag's website, he received between 42,000 and 84,000 euros a year for the post during the last legislative period. In August, Ramsauer called a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar a "hypocritical maneuver." The CSU politician says he doesn't see any conflict of interest because he keeps the two issues strictly separate.
Either way, neither Berlin nor Brussels is interested in further straining relations, which are already difficult due to Western criticism of the World Cup.
The chair of the European Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, Anton Hofreiter, has urged the German government to show greater restraint. But he also adds: "The consequences of this corruption scandal must be felt not only by those who took bribes, but also by those who bribe and thus try to damage our democracy."
Two Separate Issues
At the same time, German Economics Minister Robert Habeck, also a member of the Green Party like Hofreiter, already made clear in Brussels on Tuesday that the corruption scandal did not affect the gas supplies Germany recently negotiated with Doha. "Those are two different things," he said.
EU leaders also tried to dismiss the issue as a problem of the European Parliament at their summit on Thursday. Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin was alone in calling for the establishment of an EU-wide body to monitor European institutions, including the parliament.
Meanwhile, the European Commission is sticking to its plan to appoint a special representative for the Gulf states this year to deepen the partnership with Qatar and the other countries in the region. "There is no connection between that staffing and the events surrounding the parliament," a senior Brussels official says. The struggle for freedom in the West, it seems, isn't felt everywhere as dramatically as Metsola portrays it.