Written by 5:00 am European Union

Inside the ‘Qatargate’ graft scandal rocking the EU

For a member of the European parliament, Eva Kaili lived life more like a movie star.

The Greek politician spent her free time on yachts in the Aegean, glitzy nightclubs in Athens, hanging out at events with supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and spending summer vacations at tycoon Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island Caribbean hideaway.

Work involved panel discussions with crypto billionaires and trips abroad including to Qatar ahead of the World Cup, besides the more mundane task of chairing debates in her role as a vice-president of the European parliament.

Now the former TV news anchor, 44, is confined to a prison on the grimy industrial outskirts of Brussels, under constant surveillance, with just two visits a month from her two-year-old daughter.

She stands accused by Belgian prosecutors of accepting cash and gifts from Qatar and Morocco in exchange for her votes in key parliamentary resolutions.

The final plot twist is yet to be written: is Kaili innocent, as her lawyer claims, seduced and duped by her Italian partner? Or did she take advantage of lax parliamentary oversight to line her own pockets?

Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that the so-called Qatargate scandal has rocked the European Union and forced it to confront uncomfortable truths about how it manages lobbying by foreign powers.

The parliament, a junior partner in many areas of EU policy, has cast itself as a champion of human rights and the rule of law. The three human rights resolutions it passes each month can have material impact on the ground, activists say, pressuring governments and raising the profile of local campaigners.

Prosecutors allege Qatar paid bribes to reduce parliamentary criticism of its treatment of migrant workers building stadiums and hotels for the World Cup last December. Doha denies the allegations.

Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi
Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi are both involved in a corruption probe implicating World Cup hosts Qatar © Eurokinissi/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile Morocco was lobbying for a deal on fishing rights and the recognition of its sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. It too denies paying bribes.

EU lawmakers this month have begun the formal process to lift the immunity of two more of their colleagues suspected of wrongdoing. They have also announced reforms to limit so-called revolving doors, where public officials take roles in the private sector, especially lobbying.

Stéphane Séjourné, leader of the Renew Liberal group in parliament, says unless it reforms swiftly, the scandal will increase Euroscepticism. “If we do not resolve it before summer then it will feed into the extremist debates at the next European elections [in May 2024],” he says. “The EP has fallen behind many national parliaments on transparency and anti-corruption rules.”

The scandal undermines the legitimacy of the whole European project, says Arancha González, a former Spanish foreign minister and ex-adviser to the European Commission. “Legitimacy rests on the national parliaments and the direct electoral representatives of the citizens in the European parliament. It has to send a message of zero tolerance for corruption and foreign interference. Governments have fallen over corruption.”

Anatomy of a scandal

Kaili’s own fall was quick and brutal. She was in the garage of her apartment block in Brussels around 10.30am on December 9, when police arrived to arrest her partner Francesco Giorgi and impounded his car.

Returning to her flat, she read a local newspaper report that Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant, had been arrested along with two others on suspicion of corruption, her lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos said.

She knew exactly who to call: Pier Antonio Panzeri, the former MEP who once employed Giorgi and saw him frequently. He didn’t answer, because he had already been arrested as well.

Eva Kaili’s lawyers — André Risopolous, right, and Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, second left — arrive at the Justice Palace prior to a hearing in Brussels on January 19
Eva Kaili’s lawyers — André Risopolous, right, and Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, second left — arrive at the Justice Palace on January 19 prior to a hearing in Brussels © Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

According to her lawyer, Kaili then found €300,000 in cash in the apartment. She believed the money — “a monster” she called it — belonged to Panzeri, now director of a human rights NGO. She called her father, who was looking after the daughter she had with Giorgi.

Kaili put the cash in a suitcase — along with nappies and baby food for the child — and told her father to take it to the Sofitel hotel near the parliament where an unnamed friend of Panzeri would collect it.

The police, who had been watching throughout, picked her father up and hauled him off. He was released later that day but Kaili’s role was enough to invalidate her immunity as an MEP: she had been caught “in flagrante,” prosecutors said, and was arrested and charged with corruption and money-laundering.

While she awaits her trial, Kaili has elected to do cleaning and kitchen duties and spends time in the prison library. But she has also been put through “torture” in custody, Dimitrakopoulos alleges — held in a cold cell at one point with a bright light on keeping her awake for more than 16 hours, and denied contact with her lawyer for three days. He is filing an official complaint. The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment.

Luca Visentini, the director-general of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, who ran an established human rights campaign group, were also detained while several offices in parliament were raided.

Visentini was released without charge but Kaili, Panzeri, Giorgi and Figà-Talamanca were charged with corruption, money laundering and membership of a criminal organisation. Some €1.5mn in cash was seized in total including the suitcase and more from Kaili and Panzeri’s homes.

Figà-Talamanca, whose NGO shared its Brussels office with one run by Panzeri, denies wrongdoing. Giorgi, 35, has made a partial confession, according to media reports verified by the FT. His lawyer declined to comment.

Prosecutors have asked parliament to lift the immunity of two other Socialist MEPs, Marc Tarabella of Belgium and Andrea Cozzolino of Italy. Both say they are innocent.

Pier Antonio Panzeri was charged with corruption, money laundering and membership of a criminal organisation © AFP/Anadolu/Getty

Panzeri, who left parliament in 2019, has admitted leading a criminal enterprise and struck a plea bargain with prosecutors. He has promised to give full details of the his crimes and others’ involvement in return for a lighter sentence.

The evidence for the scheme is extensive, according to two officials familiar with the matter. Police had been watching Panzeri for months after a tip off from a foreign intelligence service that Morocco was seeking to influence EU affairs, they say. In July 2022, Belgian intelligence officers planted video cameras in Panzeri’s Brussels home after finding €700,000 in cash there.

Prosecutors allege that the Italian, 67, had also taken money from Qatar to improve perceptions of its human rights record ahead of the World Cup there last December.

He and Giorgi, his former assistant, were filmed on CCTV heading into a meeting with a Qatari delegation led by labour minister Ali Bin Samikh al-Marri at the five-star Steigenberger Wiltcher’s hotel in Brussels on October 10.

Panzeri enters with an empty bag: Giorgi with his daughter in a pushchair. Giorgi was then working for Cozzolino, the Italian MEP, and living with Kaili.

The Greek MEP had become Panzeri’s inside woman, according to legal documents seen by the FT. She met Qatari ministers in Brussels, visited the country twice, tried to water down a parliamentary resolution condemning labour rights in the country and turned up to vote in favour of abolishing visas for Qataris visiting the EU in a committee of which she wasn’t a member.

Giorgi attended the vote accompanied by an official from Doha. According to several MEPs present, they jumped and cheered when the vote passed.

A protest against the fishing agreement between the European Union and Morocco that includes waters of the Western Sahara
A protest against the fishing agreement between the European Union and Morocco that includes waters of the Western Sahara © Lito Lizana/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In November, the parliament voted on a resolution on human rights in Qatar. With Kaili’s help, the text of the resolution was watered down by amendments from the socialist and centre-right groups, according to public records.

But it still contained criticism. And after the scandal broke the final vote on visa-free travel was postponed.

Some MEPs say the alleged scheme had no meaningful impact. “My impression is that [Panzeri’s] group was trying to show the Qataris they were working hard on their behalf, which is why they made all these scenes,” says Brando Benifei, the head of Italy’s Democratic party (PD) socialist delegation. “But[they] didn’t really gain any substantial results.”

Conventional diplomatic efforts by Qatar and Morocco seem to have achieved greater returns. The EU commission and council had backed visa-free travel for Qatari nationals, and member states are keen customers of Qatar’s gas supplies. The EU happily struck a fishing agreement and agricultural trade deal with Morocco in 2019. In March last year Spain endorsed Rabat’s proposed autonomy plan for Western Sahara, ending a year-long diplomatic dispute.

The impact of the alleged plot is set to be more pronounced, however, for the individuals accused of carrying it out.

A queen’s gambit

Kaili’s journey to infamy is a tale of hard work, and even harder networking.

She was elected a councillor in her home city of Thessaloniki at the age of 24. Evangelos Venizelos, a future deputy prime minister, took her under his wing and two years later she secured a job as a news anchor for the Greek news station Mega TV.

Kaili was regularly photographed in the trendiest bars and restaurants of Athens in the company of TV executives and well-heeled Athenian socialites and business scions. She was seen at the VIP tables of nightclubs and music venues, often accompanied by Greek-Russian oligarch Ivan Savvidi, who used to be a member of the Russian parliament.

She successfully ran for the national parliament with the leftwing Pasok party in 2007 aged only 29, before being forced to relinquish her seat by the party hierarchy in 2012. She got a job as the head of media relations to a powerful Greek businessman who owned media and insurance companies.

Then in 2014 she was elected to the European parliament, where she worked principally on technology and cryptocurrency policy before being elected one of the 14 vice-presidents of the European parliament last year.

In Greece she was described in the media as a “rising EU star,” but her haughty manner alienated people who worked for her — they dubbed her “Queen Elizabeth,” according to a staff member.

Panzeri, then a fellow MEP, became an acquaintance, according to several current and former parliament officials. Her behaviour at times raised eyebrows. Paul Tang, a Dutch MEP from Kaili’s socialist group who worked with her on legislation, and others say they became concerned that she was too close to the crypto industry and tried to reduce her role over those matters. Her Instagram account is filled with promotion of her activities in artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies. “We isolated her,” he says.

When she broke with the party line on Qatar it did not raise alarm bells. “She was not very predictable,” Tang says. “When she moved on Qatar we were like, well, she’s the odd one out.”

Kaili was already under investigation before her arrest. On December 15 the European public prosecutor asked to lift her immunity because of suspicions of a more common parliamentary scam — abusing public money. In 2015 alone almost 100 MPs had to pay back some allowances after being investigated.

Olaf, the EU anti-fraud agency, began an inquiry in 2018 after she allegedly diverted money from her assistant’s salary to her own pocket, according to two people familiar with the case. She also allegedly claimed money for staff travel to parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg when they stayed at home.

Her lawyer, Dimitrakopoulos, declined to comment on each of these allegations. Olaf said it had completed an investigation into two MEPs over suspicions of fraudulent management of funds, but would not make further comment.

People close to the investigation suspect the cash received by Panzeri and Giorgi was used to pay off others. “Otherwise they would have wired the money to offshore bank accounts,” says one person.

A man in a suit sits at a conference table
Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, whose No Peace Without Justice NGO shared its Brussels office with one run by Panzeri, denies wrongdoing © IPA/Sipa USA/Reuters Connect

Some of this cash was handed out by Panzeri as donations: trade union boss Visentini, for example, admitted accepting almost €50,000 towards his ITUC leadership campaign costs. Surveillance footage filmed by Belgium’s intelligence service shows Panzeri handing it over in envelopes embossed with a Santa Claus. Visentini says he transferred the money to ITUC’s solidarity fund to pay for flights to a conference.

Visentini travelled with Panzeri to Doha in October 2022, on flights paid for by the Qatari government, the person close to the investigation says.

ITUC had drawn criticism for praising improvements to the treatment of migrants by Qatar, including the abolition of the kafala system that prevents workers changing employers. Visentini said it was “totally untrue” he did anything wrong.

ITUC has suspended him and started an internal inquiry, but said the suggestion that any other entity has influenced its views is “entirely false.”

Anti-graft reforms

In parliament, the clean-up has begun.

Roberta Metsola, who only took over as president of the European parliament a year ago, unveiled 14 reforms last month she described as “first steps”.

They include making it mandatory for the 705 MEPs to publicly report all their meetings and “cooling off” periods for former members who want to become lobbyists. Panzeri, as a former MEP, had kept his access badge without needing to register. The unregulated so-called friendship groups set up by MEPs and third country officials and politicians, including Qatar, will be banned.

A man in a suit talks to a journalist’s microphone
Luca Visentini, the director-general of the International Trade Union Confederation, was released without charge © Virginia Mayo/AP

Metsola herself also this month declared 142 gifts she had received, including three from Moroccan officials.

The other party heads have backed the moves but MEPs from across the political spectrum have called for them to go further.

In December the parliament already voted on a resolution that included a much more ambitious reform agenda including an EU-wide ethics body, which must be agreed with the other institutions, stronger protections for whistleblowers, and a mandatory declaration of assets for members.

Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, promised an EU-wide ethics regulator when she took office in 2019 but has yet to publish a proposal.

Ylva Johansson, EU commissioner for home affairs, told parliament in January that besides the regulator the commission was preparing two sets of measures; first, a new law to create unified definitions and penalties for corruption across the EU; and second, a “defence of democracy package” to safeguard elections and fight misinformation.

Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and now a liberal MEP, says that the parliament had been “waiting for years for an ethics body but there has been too much infighting between the institutions”.

Those other institutions — the council of member states and the commission — have not been implicated in the Qatargate scandal.

Many MEPs want further reforms, such as controls on second jobs. Verhofstadt is one of the top earners. According to calculations based on his public declarations by Integrity Watch EU, he earns more than €204,000 a year in income beyond his €118,000 salary.

He receives more than €10,000 per month as a board member of Sofina Group, a Belgian investment company, and between €1,000 and €5,000 sitting on the advisory board of Planet First Partners, another investment group. Other income comes from speaking engagements.

Verhofstadt says that “the main thing is transparency, to declare everything you do,” adding that if those interests started to interfere in an MEP’s work “you should not be long in politics”.

Manon Aubry, French co-leader of the Left group in the assembly, who tabled the resolution on Qatar, says the “culture of opacity” should be the same across all three EU institutions. “We need to really clean up the institutions from the bottom to the top, because otherwise that culture is never going to end.”

The stakes are higher for the parliament, says Simon Hix of the European University Institute in Florence. It is the only directly elected body in the EU and it has gained powers over recent decades, yet it still struggles to be taken seriously by national politicians.

“This scandal resonates with political elites,” he says. “The European parliament has a lower reservoir of legitimacy than national parliaments [and] it drains very quickly. Its influence may have peaked.”

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