Police launched a new wave of raids on Monday against political figures in Brussels for alleged corruption involving Qatari interests, in a scandal that threatens to tear apart the European Union’s democracy.
“The European Parliament,” said its president, Roberta Metsola, in a session in Strasbourg on Monday, “is under attack.”
The focal point of that 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 cell while she awaits her scheduled court appearance on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, her colleagues in Strasbourg expelled her from the S&D group as her fellow MEPs prepared to strip her of her vice-president title.
Several other S&D members, who are not directly implicated but are under scrutiny for their connections to the defendants and their advocacy on Qatar’s behalf, have also agreed to withdraw from key assignments, including Marie Arena MEP as chair of the human rights subcommittee. of Parliament.
In all, Belgian police recorded six arrests (although two people, Kaili’s father and union leader Luca Visentini, have been released) and searched 19 private homes. The police haul of cash includes 600,000 euros in a private home, “several hundred thousand euros” in a suitcase seized from a Brussels hotel and 150,000 euros in Kaili’s apartment. Her family assets in Greece have been frozen.
After blocking access to IT equipment over the weekend, police said they recovered the data on Monday. In addition to Kaili’s office, the offices of two assistants were also marked “No Access” on Monday afternoon. One labeled as F. Giorgi, Kaili’s partner, also under arrest, and the other labeled as 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 while promising to open an internal investigation.
The call for an investigation it was repeated by the MEPs in Strasbourg and throughout the bloc. “Europe’s credibility is at stake,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
However, for watchdogs, the threat to Europe’s credibility has always been clear. The scandal is not an attack but a “self-inflicted harm”, tweeted Alberto Alemanno, founder of Good Lobby, in response to Metsola’s speech. “The EU Parliament and most of its members have historically resisted stricter integrity rules and an effective enforcement system.”
The EU’s transparency record is full of loopholes and voluntary elements: Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, for example, hosted Panzeri’s NGO, Fight Against Impunity, to deliver reports, even though it was not listed on the transparency register.
Based on its activities, Fight Against Impunity should have been entered into 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 panel has stalled in the Commission. Vice President of Transparency Věra Jourová has mentioned the legal obstacles and the lack of interest in an ethics body that would apply to all institutions and would actually have enforcement power.
On Monday, the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed a new determination to create a general surveillance body. “It is very important to have not just strict rules, but the same rules that cover all the EU institutions and not allow any exceptions,” she told reporters.
But for all the talk about protecting trust and promoting transparency in the EU institutions, top officials resisted early opportunities to put it into practice. Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant quickly shut down questions as journalists tried to pressure von der Leyen over tweets by Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas in which she had praised Qatar’s labor reforms ahead of the World Cup. .
It was a similar (virtual) scene in Strasbourg, where a Parliament speaker refused to answer questions of reporters at an online press conference.
“Our form of open, free and democratic societies is under attack,” Metsola declared in Strasbourg. “The enemies of democracy for whom the very existence of this Parliament is a threat will stop at nothing. These malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries, have allegedly armed NGOs, unions, individuals, aides and members of the European Parliament in an effort to subdue our processes.”
In Budapest, Viktor Orbán, who leads a country that the European Parliament has declared “no longer a democracy,” seized his moment. The Hungarian Prime Minister tweeted a morning greeting to parliament, with a photo of former world leaders in stitches. Caption: “And then they said… The European Parliament is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary.”
Pieter Haeck, Sarah-Taïssir Bencharif, Clothilde Goujard, Nektaria Stamouli, Gabriel Rinaldi, Wilhelmine Preussen, and Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting.