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8th Dec 2023

MEPs oppose including Morocco in Qatari corruption scandal

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The European Parliament voted against including allegations of Morocco influence-peddling on a Qatar resolution that also demanded the need for broader transparency and accountability in the European institutions.

An amendment (31) in the resolution tabled by the Left said that Morocco may have also been attempting to influence MEPs, former MEPs and staff through acts of corruption.

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It then called for the application of measures in line with those applied to the representatives of Qatari interests, while investigations into the so-called 'Qatargate' affair are ongoing.

But the amendment was voted down by almost everyone on the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP), most of the Socialist and Democrats (S&D), as well as the bulk of liberal MEPs from the Renew Europe party.

Renew Europe says they voted against the amendment because the involvement of Morocco was not yet confirmed at the time and that the focus was on Qatar.

NGO a front for Moroccan state

Among the naysayers in the Renew Europe group is its Belgian vice-president, Frederique Ries, who sat on the unpaid board of a NGO fronting for the Moroccan state at a time when the EU was proposing a controversial trade deal with Rabat.

The Official Belgian Journal lists her as part of the administration on the now-dormant Euromeda Foundation, co-founded in 2018 by a former Moroccan state minister, Mohamed Cheikh Biadillah, and previously co-chaired by Salaheddine Mezouar when he was head of Morocco's largest trade business union.

It is not listed in the EU's joint-transparency register.

At its inception, the foundation subleased office space at Hill & Knowlton Strategies consultancy some 150 metres away from the European Parliament. Morocco was Hill & Knowlton's top client, netting up to €300,000 in fees in 2016. The consultancy's executive strategy director Alain Berger is Euromeda's secretary general.

Its president is former French socialist MEP Gilles Pargneaux, who in 2018 was also chair of the EU parliament's friendship group with Morocco. Ries was also on that group.

Friendship groups are unregulated bodies that claim to foster relations with countries outside Europe, and have posed headaches over the years given they are sometimes quoted in foreign media as representing the official position of the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has since disbanded all of them in light of the latest scandal.

Pargneaux's group was set up in 2011, cultivating close ties with Morocco and gaining high-level access to government officials.

When it visited Laayone, the biggest city in the annexed Western Sahara territory, in 2015 and 2016, they were quoted as representing a "European delegation." Pargneaux himself described it as a "trans-partisan delegation of European deputies."

Pargneaux, along with Ries and another MEP sitting on the Euromeda board, had in 2018 tabled an amendment watering-down a provision on tracing Western Sahara agricultural exports to Europe.

An internal European Parliament inquiry composed of MEPs into the affair, exposed by EUobserver, had cleared Ries of any suspicion or wrongdoing, she said.

Ries said she has never taken gifts from Morocco or had her trips paid by Morocco, in a line of questioning she described as "insulting". She also said she was not fully aware of Morocco's part in founding the NGO.

"I may have not done enough thorough research at the time," she said, noting her involvement aimed at fostering cultural and historical links between the EU and Morocco.

Ries said she joined Euromeda's board to discuss migration and the environment, along with academics in order to build bridges.

"This thing has been dormant, it has never been active," she said, noting she belongs to the group of MEPs fighting for greater transparency. "I should have quit the thing," she said.

Euromeda's co-founder Mohamed Cheikh Biadillah was Morocco's former minister of health and secretary general of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM).

Euromeda's website no longer lists Biadillah as a co-founder, despite his name being published as such by the Official Belgian Journal. It did not respond to questions as to why.

Biadillah's party toes the monarchy line when it comes to the Western Sahara, a large swathe of territory annexed by Morocco and not officially recognised by the United Nations.

Salaheddine Mezouar was listed as vice-president. He no longer appears on the website. But at the time of his senior posting in Euromeda, Mezouar presided over CGEM, Morocco's largest trade and business union.

Pargneaux, while still a sitting MEP, was hosting events in the European Parliament in 2018 on behalf of the foundation.

Those included discussions with the OCP Policy Center, a think tank bankrolled by Morocco's largest phosphate mining company, the OCP.

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