Summary: a full-fledged scandal has erupted in the European Parliament, one that involves EU politicians, a suitcase jammed with euros and, allegedly, Qatar.
Just when Qatar might be excused for thinking the onslaught of negative publicity and criticism of the treatment of migrants and its record on LGBTQ+ was being muted in the glorious magic of an extraordinary World Cup, along comes a scandal that threatens the Gulf state’s efforts to burnish its global image and influence.
A Greek MEP Eva Kaili is currently being held in Brussels. She is a member of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament. She is also a parliamentary vice president, though as there are 14 of them the fact that one has been detained is a little less unsettling than it might appear at first blush. Still the air in Parliament has been thick with cries of anguish and concern. On Monday in Strasbourg its president Roberta Metsola declared “The European Parliament is under attack.” Not only the parliament, apparently:
Our way of open, free, democratic societies are under attack. The enemies of democracy for whom the very existence of this Parliament is a threat, will stop at nothing. These malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries have allegedly weaponized NGOs, unions, individuals, assistants and Members of the European Parliament in an effort to subdue our processes.
Other politicians chimed in voicing similar sentiments. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said “the allegations are of utmost concern, very serious,” and the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell described the situation as “very, very worrisome.”
The allegation involving Kaili and at least five others is that they took bribes from Qatar to influence and direct favourable views of an extremely wealthy but very tiny country that has the great good fortune to have just offshore the world’s largest gas field shared with Iran. In raids that covered 19 private homes and a hotel, police recovered approximately €1.5 million including several hundred thousand euros in a suitcase at Sofitel in Place Jourdan in the European Quarter of Brussels. The suitcase was in the possession of Kaili’s father. Politico reported that her and her family’s assets have been frozen in Greece.
For its part the government of Qatar robustly denied the allegations. Through its Mission of Qatar to the European Union, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted:
The State of Qatar categorically rejects any attempts to associate it with any accusations of misconduct. Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed.
The State of Qatar works through institution-to-institution engagement and operates in full compliance with international laws and regulations.
That may well prove to be the case but what is a clear is that the investigation has been ongoing for some time and judging from the cash seized and arrests made more details are likely to tumble out that will shed light on just where all that money came from.
And when it comes to money in suitcases, unfortunately for the Qataris they do have form. In January The Sunday Times broke the news that then Prince now King Charles had accepted cash from Hamad bin Jassim, a senior member of the ruling Al Thani family, amounting to more than US$3 million over a four year period. And at least one of those payments in 2015 came via a suitcase containing €500 notes worth US$1.05 million. Two of the prince’s aides counted the money. Aside from the oddity of the way the transactions were carried out, no one is alleging that Charles benefitted personally from what were donations to his charities. A Clarence House spokesperson said of the 2015 donation that the money was “passed immediately to one of the prince’s charities who carried out the appropriate covenants and assured us that all the correct processes were followed.” As Private Eye would put it: “so that’s alright then.”
Meantime European politicians continue to fulminate mightily and call for things like an EU wide integrity system that every member has to sign on to. (To which a cynic might comment “good luck on that one.”) Though one casualty is visa-free travel for Qataris to the EU that was to be voted on this week and has now been shelved, what is lacking thus far is any outright naming and shaming of Qatar. That may be because the politicians are waiting for all the facts to emerge before pointing any fingers. It may also have to do with that huge gas field and the LNG that Qatar is providing to Europe in its hour of need.
No doubt this scandal will die down, as scandals always seem to do. But if the Qataris are serious about a lasting legacy that will do their international reputation no harm and plenty of good they will carry through on the wide-ranging reforms of the migrant worker system, some enacted but many still on paper that the securing of the World Cup caused them to undertake.
For more on Qatar and the World Cup criticism it has received see our 27 October newsletter.