In December 2022, news broke out that Belgian police had raided homes and apartments of EU officials across Brussels. At first, four suspects were rounded up on suspicion of money laundering and corruption, among them Vice-President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, her partner, Francesco Giorgi, and a parliamentary staffer, Pier Antonio Panzeri. Four months later, officials noted the involvement of at least two more MEPs. Ongoing investigations have also shed light on other EU institutions, revealing questionable behavior of Commissioners, such as that of Director-General for Mobility and Transport Henrik Hololei, who took nine free business-class trips on Qatar Airways between 2015 and 2021 while negotiating an “open skies” deal with Doha.
Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament (EP), addressed her peers during a crisis session and declared boldly that “European democracy is under assault.” The scandal has been dubbed “Qatargate” as the involved EU officials were receiving money from the energy-rich Gulf state. Apart from questioning the legitimacy of the democratic processes that underpin the entire political system of 27 member states, one of the biggest corruption scandals comes at a time when new partnerships are being formed to secure energy supplies.
What is “Qatargate”?
In December 2022, evidence was presented that Kaili and her partner Panzeri received payments in return for performing the bidding in EP regarding human rights and labor laws on behalf of Qatar and possibly Morocco. After news of corrupt behavior between EU officials and Doha broke out, a Qatari diplomat rejected any allegations associating the Qatari government with misconduct and meddling in EU affairs. Subsequently, new dimensions have been added pointing to the involvement of
other institutions like the Commission as well as gaining proof that the corruption scandal had begun with Morocco.
Federal police officers in Belgium “suspected a nation from the Persian Gulf of affecting economic and political decisions of EP”. Nearly €1.5 million was confiscated by Belgian authorities. According to Belgian and Italian sources, Mr. Giorgi and Mr. Panzeri both agreed to a plea bargain, pleading guilty to a reduced charge. Investigative journalists point to the extent of Panzeri’s corrupt behavior which began in Morocco and only continued with Qatar.
Investigations for similar allegations are ongoing, as a warrant was issued in February against MEPs Maria Arena and Alessandra Moretti. The two form a “quadrumvirate” with Cozzolino and MEP Marc Tarabella, a quartet that carried out the orders of Panzeri, who is accused of being the brains behind the network that operated within the EP. EU officials were supposedly encouraged to polish up the image of Qatar’s migrant employees and give a better version of its labor rights, especially in light of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
This scandal has once again brought to the forefront the often-criticized issue of MEPs not needing to reveal their expenditure, which is close to €5,000 per month, on top of a generous annual salary. Perhaps this is why Qatar chose the European Parliament (EP) from among all EU institutions, since the EP is the only directly elected body with co-legislative powers, and MEPs have significant autonomy in terms of spending and side-jobs, including lobbying after their term.
What’s Qatar got to do with it?
Member States have a strong economic reliance on Qatar. Especially looking at the two biggest EU powers, the second- and third-largest beneficiaries of Qatari capital in Europe are France (estimated $27 billion investments) and Germany (estimated $24 billion investments) respectively. The Qatar Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the emirate, and members of Qatar’s ruling family have built significant stakes in some of Germany’s most recognizable corporate names over the past ten years, including an 11 % stake in VW, the nation’s largest automaker, and a 6 % stake in Deutsche Bank, its largest bank. Moreover, the Qataris acquired a 5% stake in Porsche last autumn, elevating the emirate to the position of one of the company’s major owners. These generous investments cannot be overlooked and are currently being welcomed by individual Member States.
Although Qatar has made investments in the United Kingdom (investments in the Ritz hotel, Harrods department store, and Shard) and France (purchasing Paris Saint-Germain football club) on a comparable scale, its focus in Germany has been on infrastructure improvements rather than flashy prize acquisitions. Qatar revealed a $2.38 billion investment in October 2022 to help German oil giant RWE purchase US Con Edison Clean Energy, effectively lending RWE money to spend in the United States. With this agreement, Qatar accomplished two goals at once: it helped a major European ally and gained entry into a growing energy market in the US. while looking for ways to establish itself as a partner of the West, the emirate is strategically investing in Europe.
Qatar is also benefiting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as the EU is diverting to the Gulf Peninsula for energy supplies. For most of 2022, Qatar supplied 16% of its liquid natural gas (LNG) shipments to the EU. It ranks ahead of Russia as the second-largest provider to the EU, only behind the US. Member States have also bilaterally reached long-term agreements for LNG supplies; starting in 2026, Germany will receive 2mn tons of LNG annually for at least 15 years . As a result of this, about 3% of Germany’s yearly gas demand will be met by Qatar. This will help alleviate the energy crisis in a nation that has suffered greatly from Putin’s use of energy as a political tool.
“Mo Money Mo Problems”
With the extent of investments, and LNG supplies, Member States have become dependent on Qatari. After evidence of Qatari involvement in one of the biggest EU scandals had been published, neither Germany nor France commented on it. The only thing on the agenda is securing LNG and making Member States attractive for investments. This proves that governments of the EU-27 find themselves detached from Brussels, ignoring scandals of EU institutions, and working for their best national interest. At the same time, if we focus solely on human rights issues, it is questionable why Qatari energy supplies can be imported to Europe, despite the corruption scandal, whereas a huge fuss had been made over Russian energy supplies. An outstanding issue is whether the EU has taken heed of the need for energy supply diversification and is exploring a range of supply options beyond the Gulf.
“Qatargate” has caused irreparable damage to values supposedly nurtured within the European Union’s institutions. A lot of talk about separate ethical bodies can be heard from EU leaders, which will probably grow as the 2024 elections get closer. On the other hand, the MEPs will definitely have to be more diligent in providing their budget allocations, and in making sure to decline free trips and dinners. Many reform plans are already being shaped, such as a cooling off period for MEPs who are no longer in office and wish to lobby, or more diligent reporting on meetings with interest and diplomatic representatives, etc.
However, Qatar is here to stay. Given the decrease in demand for Russian energy supplies, the EU has to cultivate other partnerships and the Gulf is especially attractive. The question is how to ensure that the EU has more skin in the game.
Written by Ema Odra Raščan; Edited by Leander Kränzle
Photo credit to: Michael Sohn/AFP via Getty Images