The EU’s reply to Qatargate: Nips, tucks and paperwork

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STRASBOURG — The European Parliament’s response to Qatargate: Fight corruption with paperwork.

When Belgian police made sweeping arrests and recovered €1.5 million from Parliament members in a cash-for-influence probe last December, it sparked mass clamoring for a deep clean of the institution, which has long languished with lax ethics and transparency rules, and even weaker enforcement.

Seven months later, the Parliament and its president, Roberta Metsola, can certainly claim to have tightened some rules — but the results are not much to shout about. With accused MEPs Eva Kaili and Marc Tarabella back in the Parliament and even voting on ethics changes themselves, the reforms lack the political punch to take the sting out of a scandal that Euroskeptic forces have leaped on ahead of the EU election next year.

“Judge us on what we’ve done rather [than] on what we didn’t,” Metsola told journalists earlier this month, arguing that Parliament has acted swiftly where it could. 

While the Parliament can claim some limited improvements, calls for a more profound overhaul in the EU’s only directly elected institution — including more serious enforcement of existing rules — have been met with finger-pointing, blame-shifting and bureaucratic slow-walking. 

The Parliament dodged some headline-worthy proposals in the process. It declined to launch its own inquiry into what really happened, it decided not to force MEPs to declare their assets and it won’t be stripping any convicted MEPs of their gold-plated pensions.

Instead, the institution favored more minimal nips and tucks. The rule changes amount to much more bureaucracy and more potential alarm bells to spot malfeasance sooner — but little in the way of stronger enforcement of ethics rules for MEPs.

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who investigates complaints about EU administration lamented that the initial sense of urgency to adopt strict reforms had “dissipated.” After handing the EU a reputational blow, she argued, the scandal’s aftermath offered a pre-election chance, “to show that lessons have been learned and safeguards have been put in place.”

Former MEP Richard Corbett, who co-wrote the Socialists & Democrats group’s own inquiry into Qatargate and favors more aggressive reforms, admitted he isn’t sure whether Parliament will get there.  

“The Parliament is getting to grips with this gradually, muddling its way through the complex field, but it’s too early to say whether it will do what it should,” he said. 

Bags of cash

The sense of resignation that criminals will be criminals was only one of the starting points that shaped the Parliament’s response. 

“We will never be able to prevent people taking bags of cash. This is human nature. What we have to do is create a protection network,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French MEP who sketched out some longer-term recommendations he hopes the Parliament will take up. 

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Another is that the Belgian authorities’ painstaking judicial investigation is still ongoing, with three MEPs charged and a fourth facing imminent questioning. Much is unknown about how the alleged bribery ring really operated, or what the countries Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania really got for their bribes.

On top of that, Parliament was occasionally looking outward rather than inward for people to blame. 

Metsola’s message in the wake of the scandal was that EU democracy was “under attack” by foreign forces. The emphasis on “malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries” set the stage for the Parliament’s response to Qatargate: blame foreign interference, not an integrity deficit. 

Instead of creating a new panel to investigate how corruption might have steered Parliament’s work, Parliament repurposed an existing committee on foreign interference and misinformation to probe the matter. The result was a set of medium- and long-term recommendations that focus as much on blocking IT contractors from Russia and China as they do on holding MEPs accountable — and they remain merely recommendations. 

Metsola did also turn inward, presenting a 14-point plan in January she labeled as “first steps” of a promised ethics overhaul. The measures are a finely tailored lattice-work of technical measures that could make it harder for Qatargate to happen again, primarily by making it harder to lobby the Parliament undetected.

The central figure in Qatargate, an Italian ex-MEP called Pier Antonio Panzeri, enjoyed unfettered access to the Parliament, using it to give prominence to his human rights NGO Fight Impunity, which held events and even struck a collaboration deal with the institution. 

This 14-point package, which Metsola declared is now “done,” includes a new entry register, a six-month cooling-off period banning ex-MEPs from lobbying their colleagues, tighter rules for events, stricter scrutiny of human rights work — all tailored to ensure a future Panzeri hits a tripwire and can be spotted sooner.

Notably, however, an initial idea to ban former MEPs from lobbying for two years after leaving office — which would mirror the European Commission’s rules — instead turned into just a six-month “cooling off” period.

Internal divisions

Behind the scenes, the house remains sharply divided over just how much change is needed. Many MEPs resisted bigger changes to how they conduct their work, despite Metsola’s promise in December that there would be “no business as usual,” which she repeated in July.  

The limited ambition reflects an argument — pushed by a powerful subset of MEPs, primarily in Metsola’s large, center-right European People’s Party group — that changing that “business as usual” will only tie the hands of innocent politicians while doing little to stop the few with criminal intent. They’re bolstered by the fact that the Socialists & Democrats remain the only group touched by the scandal.

“There were voices in this house who said, ‘Do nothing, these things will always happen, things are fine as they are,’” Metsola said. Some of the changes, she said, had been “resisted for decades” before Qatargate momentum pushed them through. 

The Parliament already has some of the Continent’s highest standards for legislative bodies, said Rainer Wieland, a long-serving EPP member from Germany who sits on the several key rule-making committees: “I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to us.”

MEP Rainer Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms | Patrick Seeger/EFE via EPA

Those who are still complaining, he added in a debate last week, “are living in wonderland.”

Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms. He chairs an internal working group on the Parliament’s rules that feeds into the Parliament’s powerful Committee on Constitutional Affairs, where Metsola’s 14-point plan will be translated into cold, hard rules. 

Those rule changes are expected to be adopted by the full Parliament in September. 

The measures will boost existing transparency rules significantly. The lead MEP on a legislative file will soon have to declare (and deal with) potential conflicts of interest, including those coming from their “emotional life.” And more MEPs will have to publish their meetings related to parliamentary business, including those with representatives from outside the EU. 

Members will also have to disclose outside income over €5,000 — with additional details about the sector if they work in something like law or consulting. 

Negotiators also agreed to double potential penalties for breaches: MEPs can lose their daily allowance and be barred from most parliamentary work for up to 60 days. 

Yet the Parliament’s track record punishing MEPs who break the rules is virtually nonexistent.

As it stands, an internal advisory committee can recommend a punishment, but it’s up to the president to impose it. Of 26 breaches of transparency rules identified over the years, not one MEP has been punished. (Metsola has imposed penalties for things like harassment and hate speech.) 

And hopes for an outside integrity cop to help with enforcement were dashed when a long-delayed Commission proposal for an EU-wide independent ethics body was scaled back. 

Stymied by legal constraints and left-right divides within the Parliament, the Commission opted for suggesting a standards-setting panel that, at best, would pressure institutions into better policing their own rules.

“I really hate listening to some, especially members of the European Parliament, who say that ‘Without having the ethics body, we cannot behave ethical[ly],’” Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová lamented in June.

Metsola, for her part, has pledged to adhere to the advisory committee’s recommendations going forward. But MEPs from across the political spectrum flagged the president’s complete discretion to mete out punishments as unsustainable.

“The problem was not (and never really was) [so] much the details of the rules!!! But the enforcement,” French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield — who sits in the working group — wrote to POLITICO.

Wieland, the German EPP member on the rule-making committees, presented the situation more matter-of-factly: Parliament had done what it said it would do.

“We fully delivered” on Metsola’s plan, Wieland told POLITICO in an interview. “Not more than that.”



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Eva Kaili is back with a new story: There’s a conspiracy

ATHENS — Eva Kaili is spinning up a new, eyebrow-raising narrative: Authorities might have targeted her because she knew too much about government spying.

After months of silence during her detention and house arrest, the most high-profile suspect in the cash-for-influence Qatargate scandal was suddenly everywhere over the weekend. 

Across a trio of interviews in the European media, the Greek European Parliament member was keen to proclaim her innocence, saying she never took any of the alleged bribes that authorities say countries such as Qatar and Morocco used to sway the Brussels machinery. 

But she also had a story to tell even darker than Qatargate, one involving insinuations of nefarious government spying and suggestions that maybe, just maybe, her jailing was politically motivated. Her work investigating the illegal use of Pegasus spyware in Europe, she argued, put her in the crosshairs of Europe’s own governments. 

“From the court file, my lawyers have discovered that the Belgian secret services have allegedly been monitoring the activities of members of the Pegasus special committee,” she told the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.

“The fact that elected members of Parliament are being spied on by the secret services should raise more concerns about the health of our European democracy,” she added. “I think this is the ‘real scandal.’”

As Kaili reemerges and starts pointing the finger back at the government, the Belgian prosecutor’s office has decided to remain mum. A spokesperson on Monday said the prosecutor’s office was “not going to respond” to Kaili’s allegations. 

“This would violate the confidentiality of the investigation and the presumption of innocence,” the spokesperson added. “The evidence will be presented in court in due course.”

But her PR blitz is nonetheless a likely preview of Qatargate’s next chapter: The battle to win the public narrative.

A European media tour

In addition to her interview with the Italian press, Kaili also appeared in the Spanish and French press, where she expanded on her spying theory. 

In a video interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Kaili said her legal team has evidence the entire PEGA committee was being watched illegally, arguing she does not know how the police intercepted certain conversations between her and other politicians. 

“I was not spied on with Pegasus, but for Pegasus,” she said. “We believe Morocco, Spain, France and Belgium spied on the European Parliament’s committee,” she told El Mundo.

Kaili’s assertions have not been backed up by public evidence. But she didn’t equivocate as she pointed the finger.

“The fact that security services surveilled elected members of Parliament should raise enormous concerns over the state of European democracy,” Kaili said. “This goes beyond the personal: We have to defend the European Parliament and the work of its members.”

Kaili was jailed in December as part of a deep corruption probe Belgian authorities were conducting into whether foreign countries were illegally influencing the European Parliament’s work. Her arrest came after the Belgian police recovered €150,000 in cash from her apartment — where she lived with her partner, Francesco Giorgi, who was also arrested — and a money-stuffed bag her father had.

The Greek politician flatly dismissed the charges across her interviews.

“No country has ever offered me money and I have never been bribed. Not even Russia, as has been alleged,” she told El Mundo. “My lawyers and I believe this was a police operation based on false evidence.”

According to her arrest warrant, Kaili was suspected of being “the primary organizer or co-organizer” of public corruption and money laundering.

“Eva Kaili told the journalist of ‘El Mundo’ not to publish her interview, until she gave them the final OK; unfortunately, the agreement was not honored,” her lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos said on Monday.

Flying in on a Pegasus (committee)

The allegations — Kaili’s first major push to spin her arrest — prompted plenty of incredulity, including from those who worked with her on the Pegasus, or PEGA, committee. It especially befuddled those who recalled that Kaili had faced accusations of undermining the committee’s work. 

“I have absolutely no reason to believe the Belgian intelligence services spied on PEGA,” said Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, who helped prepare the committee’s final report. “Everything we do is public anyway. And we have our phones checked regularly, it makes absolutely no sense.”

Kaili’s decision to invoke her PEGA Committee work is intriguing as it taps into a controversial period of her career. 

While the panel was deep into its work in 2022, Greece was weathering its own persistent espionage scandal, which erupted after the government acknowledged it had wiretapped the leader of Kaili’s own party, Pasok. 

Yet Kaili perplexed many when she started publicly arguing in response that surveillance was common and happens across Europe, echoing the talking points of the ruling conservative government instead of her own socialist party. She also encouraged the PEGA panel not to visit Greece as part of its investigation.

The arrest warrant for MEP Andrea Cozzolino also mentions the alleged influence ringleader, former Parliament member Pier Antonio Panzeri, discussed getting Kaili on the PEGA Committee to help advance Moroccan interests (Morocco has been accused of illegally using the spyware).

A war of words?

Kaili’s media tour raises questions about how the Qatargate probe will unfold in the coming months. 

Eventually, Kaili and the other suspects will likely face trial, where authorities will have a chance to present their evidence. But until then, the suspects will have a chance to shape and push their preferred narrative — depending on what limits the court places on their public statements.

In recent weeks, Kaili has moved from jail to house arrest to an increasingly unrestricted life, allowing her more chances to opine on the case. Her lawyers also claim she will soon be back at work at the Parliament, although she is banned from leaving Belgium for Parliament’s sessions in Strasbourg.

Pieter Haeck, Eddy Wax, Antoaneta Roussi and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.



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Not just Qatargate: Eva Kaili also faces probe into EU kickbacks scheme

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Qatargate aside, Eva Kaili is facing a world of pain for a different reason altogether. 

Documents seen by POLITICO reveal fresh details about a separate criminal investigation that the Greek EU lawmaker is facing regarding allegedly fraudulent payments involving four former assistants in the European Parliament from 2014 to 2020. 

The probe is looking at Kaili for three potential fraudulent activities: whether she misled Parliament about her assistants’ location and work activities; took a cut of their reimbursements for “fake” work trips she orchestrated; and also took kickbacks from part of their salaries, according to a letter from the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) to Parliament President Roberta Metsola, seen by POLITICO. 

Another Greek EU lawmaker, Maria Spyraki, has also been part of the same probe. Investigators accuse her of misleading the institution about her assistants’ activities and of telling them to file expenses for fake work trips. However, the documents do not allege that Spyraki took kickbacks from salaries or false reimbursements.

In total, investigators say Kaili owes the European Parliament “around €100,000,” according to a person familiar with the case.

The details offer the first real insight into the inquiry since it became public in December, only days after Kaili was put in jail under suspicion that she was involved in an even bigger scandal, Qatargate — the alleged bribery ring that prosecutors say involved countries such as Qatar and Morocco paying off European Parliament members.

And with all Qatargate suspects now out of detention, and no new arrests since February, attention is now shifting to the fraud case. MEPs in the Parliament’s legal affairs committee will discuss Kaili’s case behind closed doors for the first time on Tuesday. 

Kaili, who was moved to house arrest earlier this month, is currently fighting the prosecutor’s request to strip her immunity — a privilege afforded to EU lawmakers. But the EU prosecutor’s office, which investigates criminal fraud linked to EU funds, has argued its probe is on solid ground.

“The current investigation pertains to strong suspicions of repeated fraud and/or other serious irregularities,” European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi said in the letter seen by POLITICO, which was sent to Parliament in December and requested both Kaili and Spyraki be stripped of their immunity. 

EPPO declined to comment on the case for this article. Kaili, through an attorney, said she has promised to pay back any money owed and to comply with any recommendations. Spyraki told POLITICO that her case has nothing to do with Kaili, and she confirmed she has never been accused of taking kickbacks.

“I have no dispute on the budget based on my responsibility as supervisor,” she said. “I have already paid the relevant amount and I have already asked the services to reassess my case financially.”

Kickbacks

The European prosecutor went public about the fraud inquiry on December 15, just days after Kaili had been arrested in Brussels in connection with Qatargate. 

The notice named both Kaili, who belonged to the center-left Socialists and Democrats grouping, and Spyraki, a former journalist and former spokesperson for the center-right Greek party New Democracy, which is affiliated with the large European People’s Party group in Brussels.

The announcement came the same day Kövesi sent her immunity-lifting request to Metsola. The documents also named four former staffers of Kaili and two former assistants to Spyraki as potentially participating in the different schemes. 

But officials publicly offered few specifics about the inquiry, only noting that it was unrelated to the Qatargate affair, which had also ensnared Kaili’s life partner Francesco Giorgi, as well as several other current and former EU lawmakers. 

Now the details are starting to emerge. 

According to the letter seen by POLITICO, the EPPO probe is examining both Kaili and Spyraki over irregularities regarding their assistants’ “physical presence at the place of employment” and “related European Parliament decisions on working time.”  

According to the same letter, another line of inquiry is “fake missions, submission of false supporting documents and undue reimbursement claims for missions expenses by the APAs on the request of Ms Kaili and Ms Spyraki.” APA is an acronym for accredited parliamentary assistant.

Eva Kaili poses for the “MEPs for #millennialvoices”campaign in 2016 | European Parliament

Kaili specifically is also under investigation for receiving “payback” from her assistants’ salaries and the falsified expenses.

The public prosecutor’s probe follows an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF, which was completed on November 23 of last year. OLAF then transferred its case to EPPO, it said in a December statement.

OLAF said it would leave any follow-up to the public prosecutor’s office, declining to comment beyond its statement four months ago. 

Immunity fight

The EPPO case is also becoming entangled in the fight over whether to lift Kaili’s immunity.

Immunity is a special privilege MEPs enjoy that is intended to protect them from being arbitrarily prosecuted for what they say or do as EU lawmakers. It can be waived following a recommendation by the legal affairs committee and a vote by all MEPs.

Parliament is now starting that process for Kaili, having already kicked it off for Spyraki. MEPs will discuss Kaili’s immunity at the legal affairs committee gathering on Tuesday.

Investigators say Kaili owes the European Parliament “around €100,000” | European Parliament

Spyros Pappas, Kaili’s lawyer, argued that typically, such fraud cases are closed after OLAF finishes its probe — as it did with Kaili — with the lawmaker paying back whatever the office says is owed. He also questioned how officials could justify lifting immunity for actions that stretch back to 2014. 

“One cannot but question both the legality and the opportunity of the initiative taken by EPPO,” he said. “The answer can only be given by the General Court of Justice of the EU.”



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