An anti-corruption investigation into the European Parliament has sent shockwaves through Brussels, prompting strong reactions from EU officials.
Five people were arrested on Friday in Brussels after at least investigators made 16 searches into suspicions of “substantial” money payments by a Gulf country to influence the decisions of MEPs.
Greek Socialist MEP Eva Kaili — one of 14 vice presidents at the European legislative body — was arrested. She was suspended from the party at the Parliament.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office did not name the country, but a source close to the issue confirmed to AFP that it was Qatar, which the Le Soir and Knack media also reported.
“This is not an isolated incident,” said Transparency International. “For several decades, Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop … and a total absence of independent ethical control”.
Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament tweeted that the EU body “stands firmly against corruption”.
“At this stage, we cannot comment on any ongoing investigations except to confirm that we have and will cooperate fully with all relevant law enforcement and judicial authorities,” she added. “We’ll do all we can to assist the course of justice.”
The allegations come at a sensitive time for Qatar as it hosts the World Cup. The Gulf State has already had to battle against claims around alleged human rights abuses of migrant workers and the LGBT+ community.
Qatar denies these allegations, with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani saying his country has been the target of an “unprecedented” smear campaign.
The hearings of five suspects were ongoing in Brussels on Saturday, according to a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office.
Kaili — former a news anchor — was suspended from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament “with immediate effect,” according to a statement shared by the group.
European Parliament sources told Euronews that Kaili’s office had been sealed by Belgium police on Friday, along with those of two Belgian socialist MEPs, Maria Arena and Marc Tarabella.
Arena denied any involvement, stating that the investigation involved her assistant instead.
“The seals were put because she worked for the NGO Fight Impunity, I believe, in 2019,” Arena told Le Soir. “It has nothing to do with the fact that she is my assistant.”
Media outlets in Greece and Belgium reported that one of those arrested is Kaili’s partner.
On Saturday the Belgian newspaper L’Echo claimed that “several bags full of banknotes” were discovered at Kaili’s Brussels home. Police searched her house after allegedly finding her father in possession of a large amount of cash in “a suitcase”.
The Greek socialist party PASOK, of which Kaili is a member, announced on Friday evening that she was “expelled” from its membership.
Belgium’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office said it recovered €600,000 in cash and seized computers and mobile phones in Friday’s swoop.
“For several months, investigators of the Federal Judicial Police have suspected a Gulf country to influence the economic and political decisions of the European Parliament, this is done so 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,” it said.
The beneficiaries are personalities with “a significant political and/or strategic position” in the European Parliament.
The arrested quartet are all believed to be Italian citizens: director of No Peace Without Justice NGO Niccolò Figà-Talamanca; trade union leader Luca Visentini; the former S&D MEP Pier-Antonio Panzeri; and parliamentary assistant in the S&D group and Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, according to Italian news agency ANSA.
Kaili, 44, has been an MEP since 2014.
Contacted by Euronews, the European Parliament’s press services said that “the European Parliament does not comment on judicial proceedings”.
“As always, the European Parliament fully cooperates with the national authorities in charge. The same in this specific case,” they added.
The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest in the hemicycle, said that “no stone should be left unturned” in the ongoing investigation.
“There is no place for corruption anywhere in the EU. The authorities have our full support,” the group said.
The Greens MEP from Germany, Anna Cavazzini, shared her surprise about Kaili’s arrest on Twitter.
“This is quite shocking if suspicions come true,” Cavazzini tweeted. “I heard her very pro-Qatar speech (at the) plenary and was extremely surprised about it.”