Corruption scandal ‘damaging’ EU’s credibility, bloc chief admits

European Union flag is brought into Ukraine's Parliament

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The corruption scandal ravaging the European Union is damaging the bloc’s credibility, Charles Michel has said. MEPs careers remain in the balance as fingers are pointed at Qatari officials accused of bribing them to play down labour rights concerns ahead of the World Cup.

The Parliamentary Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group – which unites centre-left parties across member states – is at the centre of the controversy. It’s a considerable blow to the bloc as the S&D is the second-largest group in the 705-seat assembly even after losing more than 30 seats in the last election.

Following months of investigations, police have so far launched more than 20 raids, mostly in Belgium but also in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros have been found in Brussels: at an apartment and in a suitcase at a hotel not far from the parliament.

Mobile telephones, computer equipment and the data of 10 parliamentary assistants were seized.

Taking to Twitter, Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne described what he calls the “Qatargate” investigation as a “game changer.” It was achieved, he said, “partly thanks to years of work by State Security,” the country’s intelligence agency.

European Council President Charles Michel said the scandal is “dramatic and damaging for the credibility of the European Union”.

He told Politico: “We first need to learn lessons from this and come up with a package of measures to avoid such things — to prevent corruption in the future.”

The scandal, he claims, is “making it even more difficult for us to focus on the economic and energy crises that impact the lives of European citizens right now”.

Qatar rejects allegations that it’s involved. The Gulf country that’s hosting the soccer World Cup has gone to considerable trouble to boost its public image and defend itself against extensive criticism in the West over its human rights record.

No one answers the door or the phone at the offices of the two campaign groups linked to a cash-for-favours corruption scandal at the European Union’s parliament, allegedly involving Qatar.

No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), a pro-human rights and democracy organisation, and Fight Impunity, which seeks to bring rights abusers to book, share the same address, on prime real estate in the governmental quarter of the Belgian capital.

The heads of the two organisations are among four people charged since December 9 with corruption, participation in a criminal group and money laundering. Prosecutors suspect certain European MEPs and aides “were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence parliament’s decisions.” The groups themselves do not seem to be under suspicion.

The lawyer for Fight Impunity President Pier Antonio Panzeri is not talking. He declined to comment about his client’s role in an affair that has shaken the European Parliament and halted the assembly’s work on Qatar-related files.

The secretary-general of NPWJ, Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, has left jail but must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. On its Italian website, after he stepped down, the group praised his work, saying it hopes “the ongoing investigation will demonstrate the correctness of his actions.”

Charged along with them are Eva Kaili, who was removed as an EU parliament vice president after the charges were laid, and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant. Pictures they’ve posted on social media project the image of an attractive and ambitious Mediterranean jet-set couple.

According to what Italian newspaper La Repubblica and Belgian daily Le Soir said were transcripts of his December 10 statements to prosecutors, Giorgi allegedly confessed to managing money on behalf of an “organisation” led by Panzeri that dealt with Qatari and Moroccan representatives.

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“I did it all for money, which I needed,’’ Giorgi told prosecutors, according to La Repubblica. He tried to protect his partner Kaili, a 44-year-old Greek former TV presenter with whom he has an infant daughter, asking that she be released from jail. Kaili’s lawyer has said she knew nothing about the money.

Giorgi arrived in Belgium in 2009. He made a career at the parliament with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. He met Panzeri, at the time an MEP, at a conference. “I asked him to give me an internship, and he did,” Giorgi said in his statement.

Panzeri became his mentor, made him an assistant and introduced him around, the Italian newspaper said. Giorgi expressed relief that the scheme had been uncovered. He described himself as a simple person who got in over his head due to a moral obligation he felt toward Panzeri.

Up until his arrest, Giorgi worked as an assistant for another S&D lawmaker, Andrea Cozzolino. Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party suspended Cozzolino on Friday while the probe goes on. He temporarily withdrew from the S&D.

In Italy last weekend, Panzeri’s wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni, and daughter, Silvia Panzeri, were taken into custody on a European arrest warrant. A court in Brescia ordered them to be placed under house arrest.

On Friday, a Milan judicial source confirmed to AP that €17,000 were seized during a search of Panzeri’s house, where his wife is staying, in Calusco d’Adda in the Bergamo province northeast of Milan. Police also seized computers, cell phones, watches and documents.

Police separately found a key to a safe deposit box in the house of Giorgi’s parents in the Milan suburb of Abbiategrasso, leading investigators to discover €20,000 in cash.

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