Belgian police have seized 600,000 euros in cash and detained two MEPs as part of an international investigation into allegations that Soccer World Cup host Qatar tried to buy influence, at the center of a spreading corruption scandal.
A Belgian judge on Sunday charged four unnamed people, including two MEPs and a former MEP, with “participation in criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption” after repeated arrests and house searches over the weekend Family in Italy.
The charges against MEPs have already prompted resignations and suspended a parliamentary vote next week on granting visa-free travel to the EU for Qatari nationals.
Lawmakers expressed shock at the arrest of the four and the related detention of family members of a former Italian MEP, who were allegedly offered holidays worth 100,000 euros by the Qataris. Activists have denounced a “culture of impunity” in parliament.
The allegations come as Qatar is in the world’s spotlight, with the semi-finals and final of the World Cup next week. The games are the culmination of a long-sought tournament for the Gulf state, but have brought unprecedented scrutiny to its stance on gay rights, the treatment of migrant workers and using its wealth to strengthen its role in the world.
The Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office said it suspected “third parties holding political and/or strategic positions in the European Parliament received large sums of money or provided substantial gifts in order to influence parliamentary decisions”.
Prosecutors have previously said Belgian police investigators suspected a “Gulf state” of trying to influence parliament. An official with knowledge of the investigation confirmed that the country involved was Qatar.
Doha has rejected any allegations of wrongdoing. “Any link between the Qatari government and the reported claims is baseless and grossly misleading,” one official said.
While Belgian authorities have yet to name any suspects, Eva Kelly, vice-president of the European Parliament, has been stripped of her legislature and membership of the Greek Socialist Party Pasok.
Former TV news presenter Kerry defended Qatar’s human rights record in parliament last month, praising Qatar as a “frontrunner on labor rights” over its decision to abolish its migrant worker sponsorship system.
She claimed other MEPs were trying to discriminate against Qatar, “and blamed everyone who spoke to or engaged with them [in] Corrupt, but they still act.” Carey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Antonio Panzeri, president of the Brussels-based NGO and former member of the European Parliament, has been detained in the Belgian capital, while his wife and daughter are in Bergamo on the basis of a European arrest warrant, Italian prosecutors added. .
Both Italian women have denied the allegations, according to their lawyers. Panzeri did not respond to a request for comment.
Panzeri, then a MEP, was the first person contacted by the Qataris, according to Italian investigators who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several former key EU officials, including ex-EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and former French prime minister Bernard Cazenave, subsequently resigned from the honorary board of the Panzeri NGO Fighting Impunity Membership.
The centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest political group in the European Parliament, said it was “shocked” by the corruption probe and “should spare no effort”.
Italian MEP Dino Giaruso said he and many other lawmakers in Brussels had been approached several times by Qatari officials since 2019. “They want to improve the reputation of the country, especially on the eve of the FIFA World Cup,” Jaruso said.
Anti-corruption group Transparency International said EU institutions needed an independent ethics watchdog.
“For decades, Parliament allowed a culture of impunity to develop, combining lax financial rules and controls with a total lack of independent (or indeed any) ethics oversight,” said its director, Michiel van Hulten, a former MEP.
Additional reporting by Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens and Simeon Kerr in Dubai