The European Parliament faltered on Tuesday, with its credibility at stake as a corruption and bribery scandal damaged the careers of lawmakers and Qatari officials were accused of trying to downplay labor rights issues ahead of the soccer World Cup.
The scandal, which became public last week, has tarnished the reputation of the EU’s only body composed of directly elected officials from all 27 member states. It undermines the General Assembly’s claim to hold the moral high ground in its own investigations, such as allegations of corruption in member state Hungary.
“It’s profound because it’s fundamentally at odds with what Parliament pretends to represent,” Hendrik Vos, an EU expert and Ghent University professor, told the Associated Press. Bribes, defending fundamental values. And then you get that.”
“European democracy is under attack,” Parliament President Roberta Metsola told EU lawmakers on Monday, speaking of her “anger, my anger, my sadness” that she could barely contain. While they were meeting in Strasbourg, France, Belgian police collected troves of computer data from another seat of parliament in Brussels.
Yet parliament has been a ripe target for people seeking funding or favors or influencing policy, from tobacco lobbyists and auto industry representatives to national government officials. The difference this time is that Belgian prosecutors found out.
Police have now carried out more than 20 raids, mainly in Belgium but also in Italy, as part of an investigation into bribery for political advantage. Prosecutors suspect that “persons in political and/or strategic positions in the European Parliament received large sums of money or made substantial gifts in order to influence parliamentary decisions.”
The scandal shocked the Socialist and Democratic (S&D) group in parliament. The bloc brings together centre-left parties from across Europe. It remains the second-largest group in the 705-seat parliament, but lost more than 30 seats in the last election as public support waned.
Prosecutors have charged four unidentified individuals with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Eva Kelly, deputy speaker of the Greek parliament, was also among them. Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to terminate her term Tuesday.
Carey, a 44-year-old former Greek TV presenter, is from S&D. Belgian EU lawmaker Marc Tarabella suspended himself as a member of the group on Monday, suggesting he may be among those charged. Three other S&D lawmakers have temporarily resigned from senior positions in the group, apparently because their parliamentary aides were implicated.
Belgian authorities have not yet identified the Gulf countries involved in providing cash or gifts to parliamentary officials, but several members of parliament and some Belgian media outlets have linked the investigation to Qatar.
“Qatar bought votes for this congress to cover up the exploitation and deaths of migrant workers in World Cup infrastructure,” Manon Aubrey, co-chairman of the left group, said on Monday. “I really want to send a very clear message to Qatar. You can’t buy MEPs like you buy a football club.”
Qatar’s foreign ministry said the allegations were “baseless and grossly misleading”.
Qatar has arguably garnered some favorable reviews in Europe this year, but allegations that European officials were bribed to provide those ratings are often hard to establish. But investigators have confiscated hundreds of thousands of euros at the official’s home, according to Belgian prosecutors.
A senior member of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has praised Qatar’s labor reforms ahead of the World Cup. In April, the committee also started pushing for visa-free travel for Qataris with biometric passports who wanted to come to Europe for short stays, although parliament put its role in the process on hold in light of the investigation.
But with Russia’s war in Ukraine hitting Europe’s energy supplies, member states are also desperate to find more reliable suppliers to help consumers cut high energy prices. Qatar is considered one of them. Germany signed a massive LNG contract with Qatar two weeks ago.
For Olivier Hoedeman, coordinator of lobbying watchdog European Enterprise Observatory, the scandal is more about a long-known flaw in parliament.
“This horrific bribery scandal is the product of years of neglect that have come back to haunt EU institutions,” he said. “It was too late to impose a ban on dodgy Russian lobbyists earlier this year. Today, Qatar is in the spotlight. These are wake-up calls. Reaction after yet another scandal is not good enough.”
Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report