Social Democrat Eva Kaili (center) along with other suspected participants in the corruption scandal.

Social Democrat Eva Kaili (center) along with other suspected participants in the corruption scandal.

[M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: KATAR: Vladimir Rys / Getty Images, Jens Schicke / IMAGO, EU / Source: EP, DER SPIEGEL

A Secret Meeting in Suite 412 Inside the European Parliament Corruption Scandal

DER SPIEGEL has obtained hundreds of documents from the investigation into the corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament. They provide deep insight into widespread influence peddling of a handful of MEPs and show that there may be much more to come.

When Eva Kaili learned on the morning of December 9, 2022, that her partner had been arrested and his car seized, she said she didn’t immediately realize that her life as she knew it was coming to an end. "I thought he had been in a car accident," the Greek woman said later during questioning.

But then, according to a transcript from her interrogations, the 44-year-old read the initial reports about raids and arrests in Brussels. They focused on corruption at the European Parliament, of which Kaili was a vice president. And she stumbled across a name: Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of European Parliament (MEP) and the ex-boss of her life partner, Francesco Giorgi. If she hadn’t figured it out before, this must have been the moment when she realized that the affair likely had to do with the mountains of cash that Giorgi, a staffer for an Italian member of the European Parliament, had once again stored in the apartment they shared.

Kaili tried frantically to reach Panzeri and other members of his network. Then, she called her father, who was in Brussels for a visit and was on a walk with Kaili's 22-month-old daughter. Kaili grabbed a suitcase full of cash and hid the money beneath baby bottles and diapers. "Take this and go!" she told her father.

DER SPIEGEL 4/2023

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 4/2023 (January 21st, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

But he didn’t get far. Investigators seized Kaili’s father along with the suitcase full of money at the Sofitel on Place Jourdan, a luxury hotel popular among top politicians. Kaili, too, was then arrested – and relieved of her European Parliament vice presidency just four days later. She is currently in pretrial detention, as are Panzeri and Giorgi. There are further suspects, and the police have searched more than dozen apartments and offices. Investigators are currently focusing on allegations of membership in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption.

That is how the biggest scandal in the history of the European Parliament began, the preliminary culmination of operation "Mezzo," an investigation that has been underway for several months and reportedly involves the secret services of five European countries. More than 1,300 internal documents, which DER SPIEGEL has viewed, allow for a detailed reconstruction of the investigation. The documents strongly suggest that senior officials in both Qatar and Morocco are involved in the scandal – and that the information thus far made public is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Just how deep that iceberg reaches may soon become clearer. On Tuesday, Belgian public prosecutors announced that Panzeri had turned state’s witness, meaning he is apparently prepared to testify – about the way his organization worked, about deals with countries involved, about financial structures – in exchange for a milder sentence. Panzeri, say Belgian officials, is also prepared to name the names of other persons involved, including those who he claims to have bribed. Brussels could be in for some exciting days.

According to the results of the investigation thus far, Panzeri’s group was shockingly amateurish: They apparently received payment in cash, which they then stashed in private apartments; they held a conspiratorial meeting in a hotel that was full of surveillance cameras; and they made hundreds of telephone calls using unencrypted connections.

Nonetheless, the group was apparently able to operate undetected for several years, collecting bribe money not just from Qatar and Morocco, but also from Mauritania and perhaps even Saudi Arabia.

There are many who find it hard to believe that Panzeri’s network is the only one of its kind in Brussels. "There are a number of countries that have systematically purchased influence over an extended period," says Green Party MEP Viola von Cramon. In addition to Qatar and Morocco, she says, the group includes Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Russia. "It must be comprehensively investigated," she says. "There is no less at stake than the credibility of European democracy."

1. The Beginnings: From Morocco to Qatar

Qatar has been at the center of the scandal since day one, which is primarily due to the fact that the Qataris were apparently caught in the act. But officials initially set their sights on Morocco.

The investigation was apparently launched due to a tipoff: The secret service of an allied country warned the Belgians that a criminal organization in Brussels was trying to assert Moroccan interests with the help of European parliamentarians.

By April 2022, Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE) had become convinced that the case represented a "serious threat to the country’s domestic security and to the continuity of the democratic and constitutional order." In such cases, security officials are allowed to deploy "exceptional measures," including "measures according to Article 18/12" – the secret surveillance of suspects in their homes.

Secret service officials searched the home of Antonio Panzeri on Avenue Eugène Plasky in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels. They found a suitcase under the bed containing bundles of cash – a total of 380,050 euros in 50-euro bills. In the safe, they discovered another 320,000 euros in denominations of 50, 100 and 200-euro notes.

Before they left, the investigators were careful to replace everything exactly as it had been before they arrived, and Panzeri learned nothing of the search. Initially, no charges were filed. Investigators warned Federal Prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw in a letter dated April 26, 2022, that "a criminal investigation could potentially impair ongoing intelligence agency investigations."

Panzeri continued on as before – now under the close watch of the VSSE. Investigators collected even more evidence indicating that his network was apparently secretly working to influence EU institutions, especially the European Parliament, for the benefit of Morocco.

Early on in the investigation, the Moroccan foreign intelligence service DGED popped up on the radar. Indeed, DGED head Yassine Mansouri himself is thought to have been directly involved in the attempt to influence EU parliamentarians. According to evidence gathered by investigators, Mansouri met with MEP Andrea Cozzolino , who is also thought to be part of Panzeri’s network, and possibly with Panzeri himself.

The potential involvement of the DGED is a politically sensitive detail. Should it be substantiated, it would mean the scandal’s tentacles extend to the highest levels of the Moroccan state.

Mansouri was one of the handpicked children chosen to attend the Collège Royal together with present-day Moroccan King Mohammed VI. The Collège Royal is a school in the royal palace that only opens up a new class when the child of a king reaches school age. Later, the prince and Mansouri studied law. When Mohammed ascended to the throne, he appointed Mansouri to head up the country’s foreign intelligence service.

Moroccan Crown Prince Mohammad together with Yassine Mansouri at Collège Royal in 1978.

Moroccan Crown Prince Mohammad together with Yassine Mansouri at Collège Royal in 1978.

[M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; DER SPIEGEL

In a kind of organigram of the Moroccan connection that can be found in the files of the Belgian investigators, Mansouri is at the very top. Immediately below him is Abderrahim Atmoun, Morocco’s ambassador to Poland, who has excellent connections in Brussels and Paris. Investigators believe that he steered the Panzeri group’s activities on the ground. In 2014, he posted a photo on Facebook showing him together with his "dear friend" Panzeri.

The friendship was apparently a profitable one. When travelling to Paris via Brussels, Atmoun would frequently bring along money, Giorgi said during questioning on December 10, according to minutes of the interrogation. "Smaller amounts, but still a few tens of thousands of euros." Those involved appear to have been fully aware that their actions were illegal, which explains their use of codewords. "When you picked up money, you spoke of picking up suits or ties," Giorgi told the investigators. The Moroccan government and Atmoun declined to respond to numerous requests for comment.

The fact that the government in Rabat was apparently prepared to deploy underhandedness in pursuit of their interests in Brussels is not without reason. Two-thirds of Morocco’s foreign trade is with the European Union, as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell recently emphasized during a trip to the Moroccan capital. He also noted that more than half of all foreign investment in Morocco comes from the EU, which is, he said, "hard to surpass." Furthermore, Borrell said, Morocco is the largest recipient of EU cooperation funding in the region – with an expected total of 1.6 billion euros from 2021 to 2027. The European Commission is responsible for deciding how that money is to be used.

Diplomat Abderrahim Atmoun (top), Pier Antonio Panzeri's protegé Francesco Giorgi, money found in Panzeri's apartment.

Diplomat Abderrahim Atmoun (top), Pier Antonio Panzeri's protegé Francesco Giorgi, money found in Panzeri's apartment.

[M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: Francesco Giorgi / Instagram; DER SPIEGEL

Morocco is also eager for political support from the EU in the ongoing conflict over Western Sahara. Rabat has occupied large swaths of the region for decades and continues to resist demands from the Sahrawi people for independence. For its part, the EU is counting on the Moroccan government to prevent African migrants from reaching Europe.

II. The Copycats: Qatar and Mauritania

Compared to Morocco, the interests pursued by Qatar seem far more mundane. Investigators believe that the country was primarily interested in cleaning up its image, which had been sullied by reports about the often slave-like conditions experienced by many migrant workers in the years leading up to the World Cup, hosted by the country in November and December. Here, too, Panzeri’s vast network of connections proved advantageous.

"It all started in 2018," his protégé Giorgi told investigators. According to Giorgi’s account, Panzeri met with Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, who was head of Qatar’s national human rights committee at the time. Marri then became labor minister in October 2021, making him directly responsible for the working conditions at World Cup-related construction sites.

Luckily for Marri, his relationship with Panzeri meant that he had direct access to a network established to exert influence on European Parliament. Qatar, in other words, was able to benefit from the structures that Morocco had spent several years building up.

In 2019, Panzeri and Qatar came to an agreement – in the fall, he claims, a few months after his tenure in European Parliament had come to an end. Giorgi, who was on the staff of MEP Cozzolino by then, says that he personally launched a "lobbying project" for Qatar. An Excel file saved in Giorgi’s Google cloud outlines a "three-pronged approach": "Stopping attacks from other countries, emphasizing positive aspects, attacking other countries." Giorgi said that an agreement was also reached regarding payment, though he told investigators that he no longer remembers the amounts involved.

Giorgi said that Labor Minister Marri played "roughly the same role" as Atmoun of Morocco. That would mean that the labor minister was directly responsible for providing guidance to the Panzeri group and for payments. Whether that is true remains an open question. Marri did not respond to several attempts to contact him.

Those involved were apparently aware from the very beginning that their activities went far beyond normal lobbying work. That seems clear from the clandestine payment methods used. Giorgi told his interrogators that the system involved him contacting a person in Turkey who apparently had a Palestinian background. The contact person would then provide him with a Belgian phone number to call to access the money. "The contact person was different each time," Giorgi said, adding that he would then delete all telephone numbers after each transaction "so as to not leave behind any traces." The process would be repeated a maximum of twice or three times per year, he said. "It was stressful," Giorgi complained during his interrogation.

Then, he told investigators, an idea emerged to use a non-governmental organization to process the money. That suggestion apparently resulted in an NGO called Fight Impunity, which claims to fight to ensure that human rights violations don’t go unpunished. The organization’s website still lists Panzeri as president.

Almost as an aside, Giorgi admitted under questioning that the Panzeri team had also worked on behalf of Mauritania and perhaps even for Saudi Arabia. Just one week prior to his arrest, he claimed that he and Panzeri had met with the Saudi ambassador in the Mauritanian Mission to the European Union. The diplomat "wanted information about what was being said about his country in the European Parliament," Giorgi told investigators. The Saudi Arabian diplomatic representation did not respond to a request for comment.

Mauritania itself also has "an image problem," Giorgi said, and it was one that the country apparently wanted to eliminate. "They engaged Mr. Panzeri to obtain advice about what could be done." The result, he said, was a cooperation similar to that with Morocco and Qatar – "just not involving the same amount of money."

He told investigators that he feigned the rental of an apartment to the Mauritanian ambassador, receiving 1,500 euros in rent and 300 euros in ancillary expenses – "compensation" that arrived month after month, starting in January 2021 at the latest, according to account data. The amount for the period covered in those figures totaled almost 40,000 euros. Panzeri, Giorgi said, received an additional 25,000 euros in cash. Panzeri’s lawyer Laurent Kennes did not respond to questions regarding this and other allegations.

III. A Scripted Committee Meeting

The services provided by Panzeri and his allies can be reconstructed with the help of a meeting of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights on November 14, 2022. The Qatari Marri was invited to the meeting as a guest, but preparations had begun several weeks earlier.

On October 3, investigators listened in on a telephone conversation between Panzeri and Giorgi in which they were planning a meeting with "our guys" – a reference to representatives from Qatar – in the Brussels luxury hotel Steigenberger Wiltcher’s.

On October 9 at 2:48 p.m., three black sedans drove up to the five-star hotel, a Mercedes S 380 from the Qatari diplomatic representation and two rented Mercedes S 350s. Images from surveillance cameras show that Marri was one of the first three men to get out of the cars. Five others followed with luggage, disappearing into Suite 412.

At 5:50 p.m. on the next day, Panzeri and Giorgi arrived. Giorgi was pushing a baby carriage through the modern lobby containing his and Kaili’s daughter. Eight minutes later, a man who Giorgi appeared to know joined them, followed by yet another man as they were waiting for the elevator. Together, they all rode up to Suite 412. As subsequent testimony would establish, Panzeri, Giorgi and Marri used the meeting to prepare for the approaching committee meeting.

Suspect Pier Antonio Panzeri (top left) with companions, Kaili's partner Giorgi with their daughter (right), the Qatari delegation in the Steigenberger Hotel in Brussels

Suspect Pier Antonio Panzeri (top left) with companions, Kaili's partner Giorgi with their daughter (right), the Qatari delegation in the Steigenberger Hotel in Brussels

[M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; Aufnahmen: DER SPIEGEL

The meeting in Suite 412 ended at 7:21 p.m. Panzeri’s bag appeared to be fatter than it had been prior to the meeting, as investigators noted in their files.

Three days before the committee meeting on November 14, Panzeri and Giorgi met once again, this time in Panzeri’s apartment. And this time, investigators were listening in. Panzeri read out the speech he had prepared for Qatari Labor Minister Marri, with Giorgi translating it from Italian into English. It focused on the progress Qatar had made on reforms to labor law and the alleged hypocrisy of Europeans who criticize Qatar.

Panzeri had also prepared answers to possible questions that MEPs might ask. What can the minister say about the treatment of members of the LGBTQ community? What about the ecological footprint of the stadiums?

On November 14, the committee meeting was well attended. Only six days were left before the World Cup was set to begin and many wanted to hear what the Qatari labor minister had to say. The session, led by committee chair Maria Arena, was streamed live on the internet. A Belgian citizen with Italian roots, Arena is a close confidant of Panzeri’s. According to the investigation files, the two of them spoke on the phone 389 times between mid-December 2021 and mid-September 2022. And Arena wasn’t the only person on the committee that Marri could count on. Panzeri had made sure of it.

In his introductory speech, Marri praised himself and his country for unparalleled reforms and accused Qatar’s naysayers of double standards. Just as Panzeri had written.

Panzeri, though, didn’t want to leave anything to chance. At 4:55 p.m., he called Giorgi, who was sitting in the last row. According to surveillance minutes, Panzeri asked whether the "nana" had arrived, a word that can also be translated as "chick."

The reference was to Italian MEP Alessandra Moretti.

She has arrived, Giorgi whispered into his phone, and inquired whether he should also ask Marc Tarabella to speak. Investigators believe that the Belgian parliamentarian is also a member of Panzeri’s network.

Yes, Panzeri responded, Tarabella should say: "I didn’t notice this much interest when the World Cup took place in Russia four years ago" – and that he hopes there will be similar interest in human rights shown ahead of the next World Cup in the United States and Mexico.

First, though, Moretti spoke. She said that human rights activists were also imprisoned in Egypt. And that deadly work accidents, hundreds of them, also happen in Italy.

At 5:03 p.m., Arena called on Tarabella to ask the final question of the session. And he delivered. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup and the Winter Olympics in Russia and at the Beijing Winter Olympics, he intoned, there was no criticism of the kind now being directed at Qatar. Some, he continued, seem to be painting an image of Qatar as it was 10 years ago. But the country has pushed through reforms, he continued, and that has to be respected.

It is "possible" that Panzeri had suggested that his friend Tarabella "say something specific," Tabella’s lawyer Maxim Töller will later admit. But his client, Töller insists, was unaware that Panzeri "had monetized their friendship."

Then, the questioning of Marri was over. The committee turned to a another issue before Arena ended the session at 6:41 p.m. She called Panzeri just 40 minutes later – and received the praise she was due. Marri, Panzeri told her, was satisfied.

IV. Damage Control

Parliamentary President Roberta Metsola is now hoping to take immediate measures to prevent such activities in the future, or at least to make them more difficult. This week, the conservative politician from Malta presented a 14-point plan. It includes measures such as banning European lawmakers from pursuing lobbying activities after leaving parliament for as long as they are still receiving a transitional allowance. The parliament’s website will also in the future provide transparent information regarding gifts received by MEPs along with their trips and meetings.

Controversial "friendship groups" maintained by some parliamentarians are to be banned to ensure that non-EU countries can only use official channels to approach the parliament.

European lawmakers have always been required to register gifts they have received with the president. Metsola herself published 142 such gifts just last week. She received 125 of them between the beginning of February and the end of November 2022 – thus breaking parliamentary rules 125 times. Those rules hold that lawmakers must register the reception of a gift by the end of the following month.

In Metsola’s case, at least, the presents were mostly rather small, things like scarves, vases and books. Other MEPs, by contrast, seemed to suddenly recall entire trips they had taken once the corruption scandal was unveiled.

Romanian Christian Democrat Cristian-Silviu Bușoi, for example, flew business-class in February 2020 to a conference in Qatar and stayed four nights in the exclusive Ritz Carlton – with the tab picked up by someone else. He only reported the trip on December 19, 2022. When asked about it, he said he didn’t submit the required forms in a timely manner because a staff member had erroneously assumed that Bușoi’s participation in the conference was not covered by the rule.

Qatar also paid for a trip taken by Marc Tarabella in February 2022 – which he failed to report. Maria Arena also didn’t report a May 2022 trip paid for by Qatar, which led to her relinquishing her position last week as chairperson of the Subcommittee on Human Rights. In a statement, she blamed her office staff. She told DER SPIEGEL that she has never received any money or other gratuities from representatives of Qatar or Morocco.

Violations of the Code of Conduct can be punished in a number of different ways, including the forfeiture of their "daily subsistence allowance," although that happens only rarely. And such violations fall short of valid proof of corruption.

Thus far, all allegations of corruption have been directed at Social Democrats. Kaili’s investigative detention was once again extended on Thursday. Panzeri is also still in detention, with Belgian prosecutors saying that he will likely receive both a prison sentence and a fine. On top of that, the estimated 1 million euros he earned through his illegal activities will be confiscated.

The Socialists & Democrats group in European Parliament presented Tarabella and Cozzolino with a choice this week: Either they leave the group of their own accord, or they will be thrown out. Cozzolino left, Tarabella was chucked out. At the behest of Belgian authorities, the European Parliament is set to decide in mid-February on suspending their immunity, with a majority considered certain.

Things could get particularly dicey for Tarabella. According to the application for the lifting of his parliamentary immunity, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained, Panzeri has provided extremely incriminating testimony against Tarabella. According to the application, Panzeri said during questioning on December 10 that he handed Tarabella a paper bag every few months containing 20,000 euros, most recently around half a year ago. In total, Panzeri told investigators, Tarabella received between 12,000 and 140,000 euros from him to "defend certain positions" in favor of Qatar.

The affair will also have consequences for Qatar and Morocco. The EU had been intending to make it easier for Qataris to obtain visas to travel to Europe, but those plans have now been put on ice. A planned air traffic agreement with the EU could also fall prey to the scandal. Qatar has rejected all responsibility for the scandal and has spoken of "preconceived prejudices" and one-sided attacks.

Significant trouble is also expected between the EU and Morocco. If the accusations are substantiated, "there will be consequences," says one EU official. The possible penalties, the official said, range from the curtailment of diplomatic relations and secret service cooperation to sanctions against specific individuals.

And Eva Kaili? Following her arrest on December 9, 2022, she had to wait fully four weeks before she was able to see her daughter again. Her lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, alleged on Greek television that officials used the child as bargaining chip to "break" Kaili. He did not respond to questions about the allegations against Kaili. Her relationship with Giorgi is also likely to suffer, with each of them testifying against the other under questioning. Kaili "wasn’t part of the network," Giorgi said, but: "Naturally, Eva knew of the money and where it came from, since we live together." Kaili claimed that she never considered where the money might have come from, but said some of it had belonged to Panzeri.

Kaili only admits to knowing one thing: Which money in their apartment belonged to whom. Giorgi, she told investigators, only ever had loose bills. In contrast to Panzeri, "who had bundles of money."

Mehr lesen über

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.