The corruption scandal at the European Parliament deepened this week as officials said they would seek to lift immunity on two more lawmakers accused of taking bribes from Qatar.
The Gulf state has warned that the investigation could impact economic ties between Europe and Qatar, a key emerging supplier of energy to the EU as it tries to reduce reliance on Russia.
Andrea Cozzolino, an Italian member of the European Parliament, and his Belgian colleague, Marc Tarabella, are the latest suspects in a corruption scandal that has rocked Brussels. Both men deny taking bribes from Qatar.
Following a yearlong investigation, Belgian police last month raided offices and homes linked to current and former members of the European Parliament. They discovered around $1.6 million in cash.
Police said nearly $158,000 was discovered inside the home of Greek MEP Eva Kaili, one of 14 vice presidents of the parliament. She is accused of taking bribes from Qatar.
“The purpose of the bribery was to favor this Gulf country in the economic, financial and political decisions of the European Parliament,” Eric van Duyse, a spokesperson for the Belgian Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, told reporters December 13.
The European Parliament voted last month to strip Kaili of her role as vice president.
In November, following a visit to Qatar ahead of its hosting of the FIFA World Cup, Kaili spoke strongly in favor of the Gulf state during a debate with other European lawmakers, accusing its critics of hypocrisy.
“Today the World Cup in Qatar is a proof actually of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of the country, with reforms that inspired the Arab world. I alone said that Qatar is a front-runner in labor rights,” Kaili said November 21.
“[Qatar] committed to a vision by choice and they opened to the world. Still, some here are calling to discriminate [against] them — they bully them and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages [with them] of corruption. But still they take their gas,” she added.
Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, an Italian parliamentary assistant, is also accused of involvement in the bribery allegations. It’s reported that police found $789,000 in his hotel room, stashed in a suitcase. Both Kaili and Giorgi deny the accusations and are being held in custody pending the investigation.
An Italian former member of the European Parliament, Pier Antonio Panzeri, and an Italian lobbyist named as Niccolo Figa-Talamanca are also being investigated by Belgian police. They also deny the accusations.
There are growing demands for recent policy decisions on Qatar to be re-examined in the wake of the bribery allegations, said Andre Wolf of the Berlin-based Centre for European Policy, an expert on EU-Qatar relations.
“In the last couple of months, there was a legislative procedure regarding the liberalization of visas for citizens of Qatar to Europe, to the EU, and apparently [Qatar] tried to exert influence on the decision-making regarding this legislation,” Wolf told VOA. “This legislation has already been passed. It has been suspended now as a consequence of the ongoing investigation.”
Qatar denies trying to bribe EU officials. It has warned that relations with Europe are at risk.
Germany and Belgium are among European nations that have signed deals to buy Qatari liquified natural gas, or LNG, as the bloc tries to wean itself off Russian energy in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
In a statement, the Qatari mission to the EU said last month, “The decision to impose such a discriminatory restriction that limits dialogue and cooperation on Qatar before the legal process has ended will negatively affect regional and global security cooperation, as well as discussions around global energy.”
Analyst Wolf said the timing of the scandal was delicate. “Qatar, with its developed infrastructure and its relative proximity to Europe, will be an important player and will be ever more important for overall gas imports to Europe,” he said.
Wolf added that Qatar was angered by European criticism of its human rights and equality laws during its hosting of last month’s World Cup.
“It also affected, I think, some rather deeply rooted issues related to culture and religion, which should better not be blended with the World Cup or other political issues. But I think the bilateral relations can overcome this period because it’s in both their interests to cooperate,” he told VOA.
The president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, warned last month that the criminal proceedings were damaging trust in the EU. “Trust that has taken years to build but only moments to destroy will need to be rebuilt, and this work starts now,” Metsola said.