Vice president of EU parliament suspended amid suspicions Qatar bought influence

BRUSSELS — A vice president of the European Union’s parliament was suspended Friday by her party group after she was arrested by Belgian police, which carried out several raids linked to an investigation into suspected influence peddling at the EU assembly by a Gulf state.

While prosecutors did not name the country under investigation, a legal source close to the case confirmed to AFP Belgian press reports that it was Qatar.

The center-left Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament said that it “has taken the decision to suspend MEP Eva Kaili’s membership of the S&D Group with immediate effect, in response to the ongoing investigations.”

Kaili, a 44-year-old former Greek TV news anchor, was also suspended by her party at home — the Greek Socialist party, Pasok-Movement for Change. Pasok said it acted “following the latest developments and the investigation by the Belgian authorities into the corruption of European officials.”

Pasok and the S&D declined to provide further details.

Kaili was arrested by police on Friday, hours after four others had been detained for questioning.

Police staged 16 raids across Belgium’s capital, Brussels, on Friday as part of a probe into corruption and money laundering involving the EU assembly and a Gulf country, the federal prosecutor’s office said.

In a statement, the Left group in the EU parliament demanded that what it called “the unfolding Qatar lobbying scandal” should be added to the assembly’s agenda next week so that further details about the affair can be established and an appropriate response considered” by lawmakers .

The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014. (David Iliff via Wikimedia Commons)

Pasok publicly distanced herself from comments made by Kaili at the EU parliament last month, in which she praised Qatar and said that the soccer World Cup there is “proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.”

Belgian prosecutors said four people were detained for questioning, and investigators recovered around 600,000 euros ($633,500) in cash and seized computer equipment and mobile telephones during the Brussels raids.

The prosecutors did not identify the four but said one was a former member of the EU parliament. At least three were either Italian citizens or originally came from Italy, a source close to the case told AFP. The former MEP was identified by media reports as Italy’s Pier-Antonio Panzeri, who served as a socialist in the parliament between 2004 and 2019.

All five, including Kaili, were still being questioned Saturday, said a spokesman for Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office.

A Qatari government official told AFP: “We are not aware of any details of an investigation. Any claims of misconduct by the State of Qatar are seriously misinformed.”

The country “operates in full compliance with international laws and regulations,” he added.

The raids targeted in particular assistants working for EU lawmakers, the statement said. The EU assembly has 705 elected members from the bloc’s 27 member nations. Each lawmaker has a number of assistants.

Prosecutors said Belgium’s federal judicial police suspect the Gulf country of trying “to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament.”

People gather around the official countdown clock showing remaining time until the kick-off of the World Cup in Doha, Qatar, November 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

They said this was allegedly done “by paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to third parties with a significant political and/or strategic position within the European Parliament.”

The EU parliament’s press service declined to comment on the raids while an investigation was underway, but said the assembly was cooperating fully with Belgian police.

Kaili was elected in January as one of 14 vice presidents at the EU assembly, where she has served as a member since 2014.

Her arrest sparked calls on Saturday for the bloc’s MPs to be held to higher standards.

“This is not an isolated incident,” said anti-corruption campaigning group Transparency International.

“While this may be the most egregious case of alleged corruption the European Parliament has seen in many years, it is not an isolated incident,” said a statement from its director Michiel van Hulten.

“Over many decades, the Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) ethics oversight.

“In many ways it has become a law unto itself,” added van Hulten, urging “root and branch” reform.

“Every serious attempt to improve accountability is blocked by the Parliament’s ruling Bureau, with the acquiescence of a majority of MEPs,” he added.

Left-wing French MEP Manon Aubry condemned Qatar’s “aggressive lobbying” and demanded a parliamentary debate on the Gulf state.

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