NewsEuropeThe 'Qatargate' puts foreign interference in European institutions in the spotlight

The ‘Qatargate’ puts foreign interference in European institutions in the spotlight

The investigation into alleged bribes from Qatar to members of the European Parliament, including former Vice President Eva Kaili, gradually spreads its tentacles to show that the whirlwind of arrests and searches of offices and homes of deputies and parliamentary assistants is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem. The name of Morocco had been appearing in the mouths of European sources for several days that point to this country as one of the traditionally most aggressive lobbyists in Brussels and which is now cited in the Italian side of the investigation of the Qatargate. Both international organizations and many MEPs warn that there are several countries that have spent years crossing the limits of what is legitimate lobbying and are demanding clearer rules of transparency from all parties.

Sometimes it is an expensive gift, not always within the limit of 150 euros that a European official can receive without having to declare it. Other times it is a trip, perhaps camouflaged as a work invitation —a visit to a center, a conference— but which includes expenses paid for luxury stays of several days, sometimes even with the family or several guests. And although few, sometimes, as the research of the Qatargateare suitcases and bags full of cash seized from the houses of MEPs and former parliamentarians and presented to the press as if it were a drug trafficking cache.

Of Qatargate The size of the bribes and the high profile of those already officially indicted for corruption and money laundering in the case have been surprising: in addition to the dismissed Vice President Kaili, her partner and parliamentary adviser, Francesco Giorgi, the former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and a leader from an Italian NGO, Niccolo Figa-Talamanca.

What has not surprised anyone in Brussels is the fact that a foreign State (or several) have tried to influence MEPs —in this case— to achieve a policy favorable to their interests or, in many other cases, that certain issues, as issues of human rights violations, are not touched on in the many debates in the Eurochamber.

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“Since I came to Parliament in 2004, I have always worked on the issue of Western Sahara and I have always faced a lobby very powerful pro-Moroccan”, recalls the former Portuguese socialist MEP Ana Gomes, who coincided in the legislature with Panzeri. “I saw colleagues who changed their position because their governments did. but Panzeri [que presidio el comite de derechos humanos] was always boycotting [resoluciones favorables al Sahara Occidental]”, he points out, and suspects that it was because Morocco was behind.

“It has always been suspected that Rabat buys MEPs,” corroborates an active European parliamentarian on condition of anonymity, who regrets that, for years, attempts to bring human rights issues in this country to the European Parliament have been silenced.

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“Ten years ago there was a scandal when several journalists posed as lobbyists” and several parliamentarians accepted money for presenting amendments, recalls Raphael Kergueno, from Transparency International Europe, for whom the European Parliament has a problem with the laxity of its rules . “What has been done since then is not enough.” about the Qatargate “It is a much bigger case,” he adds, recalling that third States are now suspected of corrupting.

Many also doubt that bribery attempts such as those in Qatar are limited to MEPs and believe that names from other institutions will come out of the ongoing investigation. “If I were a country with as much money as Qatar, I wouldn’t just focus on the European Parliament and people who don’t have as much influence either,” says an MEP who was involved in visa liberalization negotiations for Qatar paralyzed after the scandal. of bribes.

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“It’s going to be a Pandora’s box”, predicts another MEP who assures that she has also tried to entertain her lobbies with gifts left in her office that she has been forced to return. Another parliamentarian points to the paradox that, sometimes, it is not even possible to return the gift because, being below the limit of 150 euros, there is not even an official mechanism to do so.

“They buy the European elites”

The French progressive MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, who chairs the special committee on foreign interference in the democratic processes of the EU, warned this week in the corridors of the European Parliament in Strasbourg that he has been warning for two years of the long hand of various foreign powers that ” they distribute money and buy from the European elites”.

“We have autocratic regimes that make their purchases among the European elites (…), foreign penetration and corruption touch all countries and all parties,” said the Frenchman, who in the past has also singled out Russia for its economic support. to extreme right-wing groups such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. The newspaper Guardian has revealed for its part an undeclared trip last spring to Bahrain by the Czech Conservative MEP Tomas Zdechovsky.

This Thursday, the European Parliament is preparing to vote on a resolution on the Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al Khawaja, sentenced to life imprisonment in his country. Zdechovsky has led the negotiations on the resolution on behalf of the European People’s Party (EPP) which, according to the British newspaper, has caused astonishment for not requesting the release of the activist in an alternative text of the resolution in which, on the contrary, he is described as a “political opponent” and Bahrain’s official version of his terrorist background is assumed.

Both the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, have promised strong measures to improve transparency in the European institutions and avoid new embarrassments like the one that is shaking Brussels these days.

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For MEP Sira Rego (IU) it is important that the Qatari bribery scandal be seen not as a problem of individuals, as the heads of some political groups have pointed out, but as a “structural” issue. “It is not correct to suggest that this is a problem of individualities. Obviously, it is a problem for the people involved, but there is also an institutional framework that favors this type of thing, there is a structural problem in the rules that govern the life of the European Parliament ”, she analyzes.

Transparency International has presented a decalogue of demands to end the European institutional opacity, among which is the introduction of “effective sanctions” when irregular behavior occurs, or that there is greater control of the expenses of MEPs. In this regard, Kergueno recalls that only one person reviews the declarations of assets of the 705 parliamentarians. In addition, he regrets that he, the commission of five parliamentarians that advises the president on the code of conduct, in 2021 only analyzed two possible cases: one ended in nothing and the other in sanction.

Ana Gomes also believes that controls over parliamentarians must be strengthened and gives as an example that she, “together with other colleagues from other countries and parties”, made a monthly declaration of activities, with all her agenda of meetings and meetings. “Alarms should go off when someone like Kaili makes a speech like the one he did [sobre Qatar]”, he adds in reference to his statements in the November plenary session that Qatar is “at the forefront” of labor rights.

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