EU parliament chief says democracy 'under attack' after Qatar graft allegations
Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, said democracy was "under attack" after authorities arrested one of her deputies amid allegations that officials received bribes from Qatar to influence parliament's decision-making.
Belgian prosecutors charged four unnamed suspects with "participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption," and seized $630,000 in cash over the weekend, reported Reuters, as part of a probe into “a Gulf country" that used money and gifts to influence European Parliament decisions.
Several media outlets say the country was Qatar, while Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.
Eva Kaili, a Greek lawmaker and one of 14 vice-presidents at the EU parliament, was one of four people arrested in Belgium on the weekend, reported Reuters. She has been a vocal defender of Qatar in the run-up to the men's football World Cup, calling it a "frontrunner in labor rights."
Kaili has been suspended from her political duties at the European Parliament and expelled from the Greek centre-left Pasok party, said the BBC.
In a statement to lawmakers in Strasbourg, France on Monday, Metsola said she was launching an internal investigation and stripping Kaili of her responsibilities as vice-president. She also said she was returning a proposal to offer visa-free travel in the EU for Qatari citizens back to committee.
"Make no mistake, dear colleagues, the European Parliament is under attack," Metsola said. "European democracy is under attack. And our way of open, free, democratic societies are under attack."
"I think it would be no exaggeration today that these have been among the longest days of my career," she added.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the allegations "very, very worrisome," reported the BBC.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters Monday that the investigation should continue "with the full force of the law," Bloomberg reported.
"This concerns Europe’s credibility, hence we need consequences in various areas," Baerbock said. "We haven’t seen the likes of this in a long time."
In a sign of the possible political fallout, Erik Marquardt, a member of the European Parliament from Germany, said he would vote against the Qatar visa proposal.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney called the allegations "damaging," saying: "We need to get to the bottom of it," Reuters reported.
Transparency International EU, an anti-corruption NGO based in Brussels, called the the scandal "the most egregious case of alleged corruption the European Parliament has seen in many years, and said "the Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop."
The organization put out a list of 10 demands to strengthen the body's ethics rules on Monday. It said authorities should investigate "all those who have taken an unusually favourable position or displayed favourable behaviour in relation to Qatar."