BRUSSELS – The European Union’s parliament was reeling Tuesday with its credibility under threat, as a corruption scandal damaged lawmakers’ careers and fingers were pointed at Qatari officials accused of bribing them to play down labor rights concerns ahead of the soccer World Cup.
The scandal, which started unfolding publicly last week, has scarred the reputation of the EU’s only institution comprised of officials elected directly in the 27 member countries. It has undermined the assembly’s claim to the moral high ground in its own investigations, such as into allegations of corruption in member country Hungary.
“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 you get something like this.”
Referring to her barely suppressed “fury, my anger, my sorrow,” Parliament President Roberta Metsola told EU lawmakers on Monday that “European democracy is under attack.” While they convened in Strasbourg, France, Belgian police picked up a haul of computer data from the assembly’s other seat in Brussels.
The parliament, however, has always been a ripe target for people seeking funds or favors or to influence policy, from tobacco lobbyists and auto industry representatives to officials from national governments. The difference this time is that Belgian prosecutors found out.
Police have now conducted more than 20 raids, mostly in Belgium but also in Italy, as part of a probe into bribery for political favors. Prosecutors suspect that some lawmakers and aides “were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence Parliament’s decisions.”
Hundreds of thousands of euros have been found in homes and a suitcase in a hotel room.
The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Visentini, who was questioned by prosecutors over the affair, insisted Tuesday that he is “innocent of any wrongdoing,” and “absolutely committed to the fight against corruption.”
The scandal has rocked the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the Parliament. The group brings together center-left parties from across Europe. It remains the second-largest group in the 705-seat assembly but lost more than 30 seats in the last election as public support waned.
Prosecutors have charged four people, who have not been identified, with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili of Greece was among them. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to terminate her term in office.
Kaili, a 44-year-old Greek former TV presenter, is from the S&D. Belgian EU lawmaker Marc Tarabella stood down as a group member on Monday, suggesting he might be among those charged. Three other S&D lawmakers have temporarily stopped doing senior duties, apparently because their parliamentary assistants were implicated.
Belgian authorities have not identified the Gulf country suspected of offering cash or gifts to officials but several members of the assembly and some Belgian media have linked the investigation to Qatar.
“Qatar has bought the votes of this assembly in order to cover up the exploitation and death of migrant workers on the World Cup infrastructures,” Manon Aubry, co-chair of the Left group, said Monday.
Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists the allegations are “baseless and gravely misinformed.”
Arguably, Qatar has received some favorable reviews in Europe this year, but allegations that European officials were paid off to provide them would be hard to establish.
Senior members of the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, have praised the labor reforms Qatar made ahead of 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.
Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, who travelled to Qatar for the World Cup as sports is one of his files, insisted Tuesday that in his remarks and tweets “I religiously, scrupulously reproduced commission policy.”
Schinas said that he plans to keep using Twitter. “Thank God I did that. You can imagine what type of criticism I would have gotten if I hadn’t tweeted.” He said that he received a World Cup soccer ball and some chocolates from Qatari officials during his trip.
Perhaps now more than ever recently, Qatar is important to the EU. As Russia’s war in Ukraine hits energy supplies, member countries are desperate to find reliable suppliers to help slash high energy prices. Two weeks ago, Germany signed a massive contract for Qatari liquefied natural gas.
For Olivier Hoedeman, a coordinator for lobbying watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory, the scandal is more about long-known shortcomings at the parliament.
“This horrific unfolding bribery scandal is a product of years of negligence which have come back to haunt EU institutions,” he said. “Earlier this year a ban was imposed on dodgy Russian lobbyists way too late. Today, Qatar is in focus. These are both wake-up calls. It’s not good enough to take reactive measures after yet another scandal.”
Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.