The European Union’s parliament was in disarray on Tuesday as lawmakers’ careers were jeopardized by a corruption and bribery scandal, and Qatari officials were accused of attempting to downplay labor rights concerns in advance of the soccer World Cup.
The scandal, which broke into the public eye last week, has damaged the standing of the EU’s sole institution made up of members chosen by direct vote in each of the 27 member states. The assembly’s moral superiority in its own investigations, such as those into claims of corruption in member Hungary, has been compromised.
“It is so profound because it jars so fundamentally with what parliament pretends to stand for,” Ghent University Professor Hendrik Vos, an EU expert, told The Associated Press. “The parliament pretends to stand for transparency, unable to be bribed, to defend fundamental values. And then then you get something like this.”
Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, declared to EU lawmakers on Monday that “European democracy is under attack” while referring to her barely contained “fury, my anger, and my sorrow.” Police in Belgium seized a large amount of computer data from the assembly’s other location in Brussels while they met in Strasbourg, France.
However, the parliament has always been a prime target for those looking for money, favors, or to sway policy, from representatives of the auto industry and the tobacco industry to national government officials. The difference this time is that Belgian prosecutors found out.
Police have now carried out over 20 raids as part of an investigation into bribery for political favors, mostly in Belgium but also in Italy. Prosecutors suspect that people “in political and/or strategic positions within the European Parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence Parliament’s decisions.”
The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) parliamentary group has been devastated by the scandal. The coalition brings together European center-left political parties. It still holds the second-largest representation in the 705-seat assembly, but due to declining public support, it lost more than 30 seats in the most recent election.
Four unnamed defendants have been accused by the prosecution of corruption, affiliation with a criminal organization, and money laundering. Greek Vice President of the Parliament Eva Kaili was one of them. Tuesday, a resounding majority of lawmakers decided to end her term in office.
Greek former TV host Kaili, 44, is a member of the S&D. On Monday, Belgian EU lawmaker Marc Tarabella announced his resignation from the group and hinted that he might be one of those accused. Three other S&D lawmakers temporarily stood down from senior duties within the group, apparently because their parliamentary assistants were implicated.
The Gulf nation believed to have given money or gifts to parliament officials has not been named by Belgian authorities, but several assembly members and some Belgian media have connected Qatar to the investigation.
The allegations, according to the foreign affairs ministry of Qatar, are “baseless and gravely misinformed.”
It could be argued that Qatar has received some positive reviews in Europe this year, but it would be difficult to prove any claims that European officials were bought off to give them. However, according to Belgian prosecutors, investigators have found hundreds of thousands of euros at the residences of officials.
Senior members of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, have praised Qatar’s labor reforms before the World Cup. In April, the commission also began a drive to provide visa-free travel for Qataris holding biometric passports who want to come to Europe for short stays, although the parliament has shelved its role in that process in light of the investigation.
However, as Russia’s conflict in Ukraine affects Europe’s energy supplies, member nations are also in a desperate search for more dependable suppliers to help lower the high cost of energy for consumers. One of them is thought to be Qatar. Germany signed a sizable contract for liquefied natural gas from Qatar two weeks ago.
The scandal, in the opinion of Olivier Hoedeman, a coordinator for the lobbying watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory, is more about long-standing issues with the parliament.