Scandal-hit EU political group starts damage limitation work

BRUSSELS (AP) — The major center-left political group embroiled in a corruption scandal at the European Parliament will seek this week to insulate itself from more fallout in the cash-for-influence affair linked to Qatar and Morocco as Belgian justice authorities target its members.

At the parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg, France, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – the second-biggest party group in the 705-seat assembly – is set to eject two lawmakers after prosecutors demanded that the men’s protective parliamentary immunity be lifted.

A group official told The Associated Press that the aim is to sideline Italian member Andrea Cozzolino and his Belgian colleague, Marc Tarabella, at least until an investigation is concluded. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing probe.

Last week, Cozzolino stepped down as chair of the parliament’s delegation working with the Maghreb region — which includes Morocco — and as a member of a committee looking into governmental misuse of surveillance software.

Cozzolino and Tarabella — who was vice chair of a delegation responsible for “Arab Peninsula” relations, including with Qatar — deny playing any role. The assembly will take the first steps to lift their immunity on Monday, and could remove it next month.

Qatar and Morocco also vehemently deny the allegations. However, the EU assembly has frozen work on all Qatar-related files until an inquiry is completed.

The scandal comes at an awkward time for S&D before a European Parliament election next year. The group lost almost one fifth of its seats in the 2019 polls. Beyond its criminal implications, the affair has raised troubling questions about how senior members could have voted against party policy without reprimand.

Members were notably dismayed at the way that Eva Kaili — who was removed as a parliament vice president and ejected from the S&D after she was jailed on corruption charges last month — defied party guidance to endorse an opposition nominee for assembly secretary-general, a highly-prized job.

The scandal came to light on Dec. 9 after a series of police raids in Brussels, including at Kaili’s apartment, and in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) in cash were seized in different locations. The allegations have shaken the EU’s only publicly-elected institution and forced an overhaul of its lobbying and access rules.

Senior lawmakers agreed last week not to freeze the work of a parliamentary committee at the heart of the scandal, but only after the S&D legislator presiding over it resigned.

In November, three men linked to the scandal took part in a meeting of the Human Rights Subcommittee to assess the conditions of foreign workers in Qatar six days before the World Cup kicked off. The Gulf state’s labor minister was among the speakers.

The conservative European Peoples Party (EPP), the biggest group in parliament, demanded a freeze on the body’s work until the inquiry was over but relented after Belgian lawmaker Maria Arena stepped down. The EPP said members could now work “in a more serene atmosphere.”

In a resignation statement sent to her S&D colleagues, Arena said: “I am not implicated in this affair in any manner.” She called for those responsible to be ”severely punished."

Arena has acknowledged being a friend of Pier Antonio Panzeri, who preceded her as chair of the committee before he left parliament in 2019. Belgian prosecutors suspect that Panzeri, a former S&D lawmaker, accepted money from Qatar and Morocco to influence decisions at the assembly.

Panzeri’s one-time assistant, Francesco Giorgi — who is also Kaili’s boyfriend — was at the November committee meeting too, working for Cozzolino. Panzeri and Giorgi are charged with corruption, money laundering and membership in a criminal organization and remain in custody.

As World Cup host, Qatar was scrutinized for its treatment of low-paid migrant workers used to build projects costing tens of billions of dollars and its laws criminalizing same-sex relationships. But the Human Rights Subcommittee was fairly upbeat about progress in the Gulf State.

Cozzolino, Tarabella and Arena spoke favorably of labor reforms it has undertaken, but so did other lawmakers, notably from the Greens and Liberal party groups, and even a trade union representative who took part.

Hoping for better times, the S&D has nominated Marc Angel from Luxembourg to replace Kaili. He faces a confirmation vote this week, but other groups have named their own candidates it remains unclear whether they will allow the center-left bloc to retain the coveted post.

So far, opposition groups have mostly avoided taking cheap shots at the S&D. Lawmakers, advisers and parliament insiders concede that, given the porous rules and passing respect for them, such a scandal could well have struck any party.

Lorne Cook, The Associated Press