Qatar has denied any 'misconduct'

Brussels (AFP) - The arrest of a European Parliament vice-president and four others linked to a corruption probe implicating World Cup hosts Qatar sparked calls Saturday for “root and branch reform” in the EU institution.

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

“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,” its director Michiel van Hulten said.

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

The European Parliament had “become a law unto itself”, said Van Hulten. “It is time for root and branch reform.”

Alberto Alemanno, a law professor based in Belgium, said the “scandal opens multiple Pandora’s boxes all at once”, including “flawed EU ethics system for MEPs” and the “scale of foreign influence over EU”.

- Corruption, money laundering -

Police arrested Greek socialist MEP Eva Kaili on Friday hours after four others had been detained for questioning. At least three were either Italian citizens or originally came from Italy, a source close to the case told AFP.

Kaili, 44, is the partner of one of the four, Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant with the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group, said the source.

Former Italian MEP Pier-Antonio Panzeri, who served as a socialist in the parliament between 2004 and 2019, was also reportedly arrested.

All five were still being questioned Saturday, said a spokesman for Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office, adding that the investigation concerned suspected “corruption” and “money laundering”.

In Rome, a government source confirmed to AFP reports that Panzeri’s wife and daughter had been detained.

The arrests followed raids in Brussels which Belgian prosecutors said turned up 600,000 euros ($630,000) in cash. Police also seized computers and mobile phones.

Belgian daily L’Echo reported Saturday that “several bags full of (cash) notes” had been found at Kaili’s Brussels home.

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.

Prosecutors had merely said the state in question was suspected of influencing the decisions of the European Parliament through cash payments or gifts to top figures.

- Parliamentary immunity -

Kaili is a former television presenter and one of the European Parliament’s 14 vice presidents. In November, just prior to the World Cup, she met Qatar’s Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri.

In a video statement posted on Twitter by the Qatar News Agency, she said: “I believe the World Cup for Arabs has been a great tool for… political transformation and reforms”.

In a subsequent speech at the European Parliament she said: “Today, the World Cup in Qatar is proof… of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country.”

Qatar, she insisted, was a “front-runner in labour rights”.

In Athens Friday, the president of the Greek socialists (PASOK) Nikos Androulakis announced on Twitter that Kaili had been expelled from the party.

“There is pressure within the party for Kaili to leave her seat at the European parliament,” a member of the party told AFP.

“For the moment, she does not wish to give up her seat as she knows it would imply losing her parliamentary immunity,” a second source said.

- ‘Gravely misinformed’ -

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 gravely misinformed.”

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

European Parliament president Roberta Metsola, meanwhile said the assembly “stands firmly against corruption.”

“We’ll do all we can to assist the course of justice,” she added.

Panzeri, 67, currently heads a Brussels-based human rights organisation called Fight Impunity.

The secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation, Italian Luca Visentini, was also among those reportedly arrested. The ITUC said it was “aware” of the media reports.

World Cup host Qatar has striven to improve its image in the face of criticism over its record on worker protections and human rights.

Interviewed by AFP on Monday, Visentini had welcomed progress made by Qatar on worker rights, but insisted “pressure” needed to be maintained once the tournament ended.

Migrant workers make up more than 2.5 million of Qatar’s 2.9 million population.