Qatargate scandal: a brief guide to the corruption scandal in the European Parliament

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the suffix “-gate” refers to a political scandal. It originates from the Watergate scandal that ended with the resignation of then-US President Richard Nixon in 1974. One of its newest additions is Qatargate: allegedly, current and former members of the European Parliament — the legislative branch of the European Union located in Brussels, Belgium — have been influenced by Qatari and Moroccan officials to promote these countries in European legislation. The charges against them are organized crime, money laundering, and corruption. The scandal exploded in mid-December and has been rocking the European institution ever since.

New facts may come up with investigations still proceeding. What follows is a small guide to what is known as of now.

The group:

At the center of the investigation is a group of current and former members of the European Parliament (MEP) and lobbyists who worked together to promote foreign countries’ interests in the institution.

The head of this group was former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who was arrested and later started cooperating with the Belgian police leading the investigation. According to his lawyer's statements, he acknowledged his involvement in “acts of corruption.”

Another key figure of the group was Francesco Giorgi, the previous advisor to Panzeri, who also confessed his criminal actions: according to court documents analyzed by Le Soir and La Repubblica newspapers, he admitted he took bribes from the Qatari and Moroccan governments.

Giorgi’s life partner — Eva Kaili, Greek MEP and one of the European Parliament vice presidents — seems to be also involved as well. Giorgi denied any involvement of Kaili but admitted that she knew of the origin of the money he had received. She is currently under arrest. Suspicion of her participation stems from her strong support of Qatar, even calling the country a “frontrunner in labor rights” in a parliamentary setting while the European Parliament approved a resolution expressing concerns about migrants’ work conditions for the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar.

The names of two other MEPs were revealed by Panzeri and Giorgi: the Belgian Marc Tarabella and the Italian Andrea Cozzolino. Both have been accused of participating in the scheme and are now under investigation.

The operations:

The amount of money that has been seized by the Belgian police in December is €1.5 million ($1.6 million) from the homes of those involved. Grigori said this sum consisted of bribes to influence the European Parliament. An example is blocking resolutions that damaged foreign countries as written in. In its analysis of police documents, German Der Spiegel news magazine reported that Panzeri and Giorgi prepped the Qatari Labor minister for his appearance at one of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights meetings last November. Panzieri promised to reveal more of the modus operandi as part of his plea deal.

The group was “shockingly amateurish” in its operations as reported by Der Spiegel. For example, the bribe money was hidden in private apartments and Giorgi kept track of his “lobbying project” for Qatar in an Excel file stored on his Google Drive. Der Spiegel also highlighted how “those involved were apparently aware from the very beginning that their activities went far beyond normal lobbying work” because they used codewords and clandestine payment methods.

Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU Law, suggested that the reason these officials were able to operate for several years and in a sloppy way unobserved is due to the fewer checks and controls in the European Parliament compared to other EU institutions (like MEPs not being sanctioned for not reporting donations and gifts).

The foreign countries:

While the name of the scandal only refers to Qatar, Morocco is also accused of profiting from Panzeri’s group’s services.

As reported by Der Spiegel, the Moroccan government was willing to illegally pursue its interests in Brussels because of its economic dependence on the European Union. Data from the European Commission shows that 64 percent of Morocco’s exports in 2019 went to the bloc and that EU countries are responsible for more than half of foreign investments going to Morocco. According to the investigation documents studied by Der Spiegel, the head of the Moroccan foreign intelligence service was directly behind the corruption of those affiliated with Panzeri.

Qatar's reasons to participate in the illegal scheme are thought to be different than Morocco's as noted by Der Spiegel, and mainly concerned the desire of the Arab country to clean up its name after the reports on slave-like working conditions of those migrant workers that were employed in the building of football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. The main point of contact with the Qatari government for Panzeri’s group was the then head of Qatar’s national human rights committee and now labor minister.

Both countries deny any involvement in the issue.

Current information about the scandal is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg. Other countries may have tried to influence the European Parliament in a similar way. The stakes for European democracy are high. Now a gate has been opened to the criminal operations taking place in the heart of the European Union, we just have to wait to see what next will come out of it.