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27th Feb 2024

MEPs waive immunity of top suspect in Qatargate scandal

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EU lawmakers formally waived the diplomatic immunity of the top suspect in the Qatargate scandal Greek socialist MEP Eva Kaili on Tuesday (6 February), following a request of the European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi.

According to the parliament's report setting out the case for waiving Kaili's immunity from prosecution, Kaili is accused by the European Public Prosecutor's Office of "fraudulently spending between €120,000 and €150,000 of public money". If found guilty she could face between five and 15 years in prison.

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Kaili is also accused of fraudulently using four of her parliamentary assistants to submit fake expense and mission claims, and having an aide's wages and expenses paid over to her.

Although waiving immunity is a procedural issue led by the parliament's legal affairs committee and was unanimously approved by a show of hands at the plenary session in Strasbourg, it marks a milestone in what many observers regard as a frustratingly slow process.

Kaili was not present for the vote. Her colleague Marc Tarabella, a Belgian MEP who has also been arrested in connection to the scandal, was filmed voting in favour of removing her immunity.

It is just over a year since Belgian police arrested a handful of MEPs, including Kaili, and seized €1.5m in cash, much of it in suitcases carried by Kaili's father. However, despite several of the suspects having made confessions, none of the politicians or officials implicated in the scandal has had their day in court.

The probe centred on allegations that Qatar and Morocco bought off a handful of MEPs and officials for influence in the European Parliament to push their interests, among them to try to water down criticism of Qatar's record on labour rights ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and of Morocco's human rights record.

Former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and his former parliamentary assistant, Francesco Giorgi — who is also Kaili's partner — have both confessed to their involvement in the scheme. Panzeri's admission last January that he masterminded the "cash for influence" deals with Morocco, Qatar and Mauritania was part of a plea bargain for a reduced sentence. Giorgi's lawyers now say that his confession was made under duress.

Corruption charges have been levelled against Panzeri, Kaili, Andrea Cozzolino (Giorgi's current employer) and Tarabella, with the Belgian chief federal prosecutor promising last June the case would be concluded by the end of the year.

All bar Panzeri have denied any wrongdoing. Kaili and Tarabella were released from custody with electronic tags months ago. None of the MEPs have resigned their seats.

The investigation has been dogged by controversies. Michel Claise, the investigating magistrate who had initially led the probe, recused himself in mid-2023, after being accused of a conflict of interest by Tarabella's legal team.

Last month, the EU's General Court, which settles disputes over decisions involving the EU institutions, dismissed "as inadmissible in its entirety" an appeal brought by Kaili's lawyers claiming that the wiretaps and surveillance used by Belgian intelligence were a breach of her parliamentary immunity.

In the meantime, the parliament has re-written its own internal rules of procedure to restrict the access of special interest and lobby groups, particularly those linked to non-EU countries. However, plans for a new EU ethics body appear to have collapsed after the European Commission proposed that the new office have a tiny budget and a staff of four.

This article was updated to clarify that the procedure follows a request by the European Chief Prosecutor

MEPs adopt rules on ethics and transparency after 'Qatargate'

MEPs adopted, among other measures, an obligation to publish online all meetings with third parties, a declaration of financial assets at the beginning and end of each MEP's mandate, and better regulation of unofficial groups.

Qatargate? EU parliament's culture of impunity is its own creation

EU parliament president Roberta Metsola blamed "malign actors linked to autocratic third countries" for the Qatargate corruption scandal. But the parliament's Bureau has for years seeded a culture of impunity where MEPs can get away with almost anything.

Investigation

Far-right MEPs least disciplined in following party line

In a fractious parliamentary vote, the level of party discipline often decides the fate of legislation. Party discipline among nationalists and far-right MEPs is the weakest, something potentially significant after the June elections. Data by Novaya Gazeta Europe and EUobserver.

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