The European Parliament is at the center of a corruption scandal after Belgian police seized €600,000 in cash and arrested two MEPs as part of an international investigation into allegations of influence-peddling by World Cup host Qatar.
A Belgian court on Sunday charged four unnamed people with “participation in a criminal organization, money laundering and corruption” after multiple arrests and house searches over the weekend, including the homes of two MEPs and the family of a former lawmaker in Italy. .
The charges against MEPs prompted the resignations and the cancellation of a parliamentary vote next week on allowing Qatari nationals to enter the bloc without visas.
Parliamentarians were shocked by the arrest of four people and the detention of family members of a former Italian lawmaker who was offered a €100,000 holiday by the Qataris. Campaigners criticized the parliament’s “culture of impunity”.
The allegations come as Qatar is in the global spotlight, with next week’s World Cup semi-finals and final to be held. The matches are the culmination of a tournament the Gulf state has long sought but has brought unprecedented scrutiny over its stance on gay rights, its treatment of migrant workers and the use of its wealth to bolster its role in the world.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office said it suspected that “third parties in political and/or strategic positions in the European Parliament were paid large sums of money or offered significant gifts to influence the decision of the parliament.”
Prosecutors previously said Belgian police investigators suspected the “Gulf country” was trying to take over parliament. An official familiar with the investigation confirmed that the country in question is Qatar.
Doha has denied allegations of wrongdoing. “The Qatari government’s association with the reported claims is baseless and grossly incorrect,” the official said.
Although Belgian authorities have not named the suspects, European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili has been stripped of her legislative duties and membership in the Greek socialist party, Pasok.
Former TV presenter Kylie defended Qatar’s human rights record in parliament last month, calling the country a “labour rights leader” for its decision to scrap its migrant worker sponsorship system.
He claimed that other MEPs are trying to discriminate against Qatar and blame everyone who talks to them. [in] corruption, but still they get their gas.” Kylie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Italian prosecutors added that Antonio Panzeri, the president of a Brussels-based non-governmental organization and a former member of the European Parliament, was arrested in the Belgian capital, while his wife and daughter were detained in Bergamo on a European arrest warrant.
Both Italian women deny the allegations, according to their lawyers. Panzeri did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the Italian investigators, who did not want to be named, Panzeri, a member of the European Parliament at the time, was the first person to contact the Qataris.
Several former senior EU officials, including the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and former French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, later resigned as honorary board members of Panzeri, a non-governmental organization fighting impunity.
The centre-right European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, said it was “shocked” by the corruption probe and that “no stone should be left unturned”.
Italian MEP Dino Giarrusso said he and many other lawmakers in Brussels have been approached by Qatari officials many times since 2019. “They were hoping to improve the country’s image, especially before the FIFA World Cup,” Giarrusso said.
Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization, said EU institutions need an independent ethics regulator.
“For decades, Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and oversight and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) ethical oversight,” said its director, former MEP Michiel van Hulten.
Additional reporting by Eleni Varvicioti in Athens and Simeon Kerr in Dubai