How the ‘Qatargate’ crisis shook the EU to its core – POLITICO

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It was a typically sleepy Friday afternoon at the sprawling headquarters of the European Union in Brussels. The thousands of diplomats, civil servants and politicians who swarm the Belgian capital during the week had long since gone home for their weekends.

But in the steel and glass offices of the European Parliament on Place Luxembourg, a drama was about to begin that is shaking the very foundations of the bloc’s democracy.

As night fell on December 9, Belgian police and parliamentary security officers moved stealthily through the pristine corridors of the vacant building, sealing off rooms and offices as they went. At the same time, detectives were preparing to launch a series of raids on homes and apartments throughout the capital.

In the hours that followed, six suspects were detained, including Eva Kaili, a glamorous 44-year-old Greek politician who, as vice president, was one of the highest-profile politicians in the European Parliament.

His partner and his former boss were also arrested. Raids on at least 20 homes and offices in Belgium, Italy and Greece in the days that followed yielded 1.5 million euros in cash, as officers seized computers and mobile phones as evidence. Police found 150,000 euros in banknotes in the apartment Kaili shared with her partner and, in one of the strangest details, they caught her father carrying a suitcase full of cash as he was leaving the Sofitel hotel in the city center.

Kaili and her partner are now locked up in Belgian jail cells while investigations continue. They are among four suspects detained on preliminary charges of corruption and money laundering.. The suspicion, according to official documents, is that they accepted payments in exchange for bidding in the Parliament of Qatar and perhaps also Morocco.

While details of the alleged crimes are still sketchy a week later, the case has shocked the European Union to the core. It is the biggest corruption scandal to hit the EU in almost a quarter of a century, and possibly the most serious. The little that is known so far has cast doubt on the integrity of the democratic process that underpins the entire political machine of the 27-nation bloc.

“European democracy is under attack,” said Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, as she addressed her colleagues at a crisis session.

Not since Jacques Santer’s mass resignation from the European Commission amid fraud allegations in 1999 has Brussels been so destabilized by a corruption scandal.

As Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday: “This is painful and we have to work hard again to rebuild trust.”

However, to a large extent, the crisis is now out of the control of the EU.

It is the colorful figure of michel claise, the investigating judge handling the case, who has in his hands the reputation of democracy in the European Union. Abandoned as a baby in front of a bakery, Claise has become one of the most successful prosecutors of her generation.

“European democracy is under attack”, said Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Nicknamed “the sheriff” for his relentless refusal to surrender, he has achieved results in major complex financial crime cases, including money laundering rings at Belgian soccer clubs, drug trafficking and banker tax evasion. He now writes crime novels in his spare time.

waiting to happen

When the scandal broke, there was a sense that it was a crisis that had been waiting to happen. Transparency activists have been warning about lax rules and weak enforcement for years.

The European Parliament has long been a magnet for visiting lobbyists and dignitaries eager to make their voices heard in one of the EU’s centers of power. While Parliament is arguably the least influential of the EU institutions, its power has increased since it was given a new mandate in 2009, and its 705 lawmakers now have the authority to shape legislation, usually in its final stages.

Perhaps most relevant, Parliament offers a high-profile forum for public debate. His chamber is a place where lawmakers from the bloc’s 27 countries deliver speeches on behalf of causes close to their hearts, bestowing a commendation money isn’t supposed to buy.

As the week progressed, more details of the alleged influence campaign emerged from Qatar, which denies any involvement in the scandal.

Kaili visited Qatar in early November and met with the country’s labor minister and others. Shortly after, at the European Parliament, she delivered a laudatory speech, lauding the World Cup host as a “major in labor rights” and lauding the country’s “historic transformation.” It was an unpopular opinion that contrasted with harsh criticism from activists who had warned that construction workers would be treated like slaves while soccer stadiums were built.

Questions quickly arose about the role of NGOs. One in particular has come under intense scrutiny: fight impunity, a think tank led by Pier Antonio Panzeri. He is a former member of the European Parliament and a close associate of Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi. Both Panzeri and Giorgi have been charged with corruption, along with Kaili, and remain in jail while investigations continue.

The think tank was not listed on the official lobbyist transparency register, but still managed to gain significant access, including through Parliament’s human rights subcommittee.

When Parliament met for its last session of the year in Strasbourg, the shock among its members was palpable. “We are all standing in the middle of a crime scene with offices sealed off, colleagues in prison, confronted with the accusation that at least one of us has become a Trojan horse of corruption and foreign interference,” the lawmaker said. German Hannah Neumann, capturing the incident. feelings of many

While technically the Qatar scandal has involved only one of the EU institutions, the threat to the rest of the bloc’s political and policymaking machine is clear.

From a public relations perspective, the timing could hardly have been worse. On Thursday, European presidents and prime ministers met in Brussels for the last EU leaders’ summit of the year. Alleged corruption was not on the official agenda, but Qatargate, as it became known, overshadowed the meeting.

Horror

As they entered the summit, the leaders were attacked by journalists demanding to know what the EU would do to crack down on corruption. When the doors were closed and they could speak in private, the presidents and prime ministers looked at each other in horror.

Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has pledged to speed up her plan for a general watchdog for the whole of the EU | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte urged the group to coordinate their messages to the media, highlighting the severity of the crisis. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said the issue threatened to poison the entire EU project, and Latvia’s Krišjānis Kariņš shared the fears.

The next European Parliament elections are scheduled for 2024 and the concern of many in the Brussels establishment is that this scandal will turn eurosceptics into hardened cynics and drive voters into the hands of anti-EU parties.

Throughout the amazing week there has been a lot of talk about action. Metsola fiance a new plan next year to strengthen ethical standards, including greater protection for whistleblowers and a restriction on access to Parliament.

Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has vowed to speed up her plan for a general EU-wide watchdog. But that’s something she proposed over three years ago. Given the EU’s notoriously slow decision-making process, few are holding their breath.

There is another reason why the leaders of Europe’s vast trading bloc may be wary of too quick a response to the crisis. The EU is now increasingly dependent on Qatar for crucial gas supplies.

European Council President Charles Michel attended the opening of the new EU embassy in Doha in September and spoke about the need to engage constructively with the Qataris, particularly in light of the energy crisis exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine. by Vladimir Putin. This week, German Finance Minister Robert Habeck said Berlin wants to keep gas supplies from Qatar, despite the corruption scandal.

In the coming days, there will be more soul-searching as the criminal investigation continues. Kaili, who has denied the allegations against her, is due to appear in court on December 22. Her boyfriend, Giorgi, allegedly confessed in prison, according to local media, telling prosecutors he took money and pleading for the couple to be released so they can. take care of her baby.

Whatever happens next in the Michel Claise investigation, for one of the victims of the crisis, the battered credibility of the EU, it may already be too late.

Pieter Haeck, Camille Gijs, Barbara Moens, Jacopo Barigazzi, and Tim Ross contributed reporting.

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