BRUSSELS (AP) — A major center-left political group embroiled in a corruption scandal in the European Parliament will seek to insulate itself this week from more cash-for-influence events linked to Qatar and Morocco as Belgian judicial authorities will its as target member.
At a parliamentary plenary session in Strasbourg, France, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – the second-largest party in the 705-seat parliament – will remove two lawmakers’ protective Depose them after parliamentary immunity.
A group official told The Associated Press that the intention was to sideline Italian member Andrea Cozzolino and his Belgian colleague Marc Talabella, at least until the investigation is concluded. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.
Last week, Cozzolino resigned as chairman of a parliamentary delegation working with the Maghreb region, including Morocco, and as a member of a committee investigating government misuse of surveillance software.
Cozzolino and Tarabella are vice-chairmen of the delegation responsible for relations with the “Arabian peninsula”, including with Qatar, but deny any role. Parliament will take the first step to withdraw their immunity on Monday and could do so next month.
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Qatar and Morocco also strongly deny the allegations. However, the EU Parliament has frozen all Qatar-related documents until the investigation is concluded.
The scandal comes at an awkward moment for S&D ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections. The bloc lost nearly a fifth of its seats in the 2019 polls. Beyond its criminal implications, the incident has raised troubling questions about how senior members could vote against party policy without being condemned.
Members were very frustrated with the way Eva Kaili – who was sacked as parliamentary vice-chairman and sacked by S&D after she was jailed last month on corruption charges – defied party guidance to support the opposition parliamentary secretary-general candidate, This is a highly-valuable job.
The scandal came to light on December 9 after police conducted a series of raids in Brussels (including Carey’s apartment) and in Italy. Hundreds of thousands of euros (US dollars) in cash were seized at various locations. The allegations have shaken the EU’s only elected institution and forced an overhaul of its lobbying and access rules.
Senior lawmakers agreed last week not to freeze the work of the parliamentary committee at the heart of the scandal, but only if the S&D lawmaker who chairs it resigns.
In November, three men linked to the scandal attended a human rights subcommittee meeting to assess the situation of foreign workers in Qatar six days before the World Cup kicked off. The labor ministers of the Gulf countries were among the speakers.
The conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in parliament, called for a freeze on the agency’s work until the investigation was concluded, but relented after Belgian lawmaker Maria Arena stepped down. The EPP said members could now work “in a calmer atmosphere”.
In a resignation statement sent to colleagues at S&D, Arena said: “I have nothing to do with this matter.” She called for “severe punishment” for those responsible.
Arena admitted to being a friend of Pier Antonio Panzeri, who chaired the committee before leaving parliament in 2019. Belgian prosecutors suspect that Panzeri, a former S&D MP, received money from Qatar and Morocco to influence parliamentary decisions.
Panzeri’s one-time assistant Francesco Giorgi — also Kaili’s boyfriend — also attended the November committee meeting, working for Cozzolino. Panzeri and Giorgi have been charged with corruption, money laundering and membership of a criminal organization and remain in custody.
Qatar, host of the World Cup, has come under scrutiny for its treatment of low-paid migrant workers used to build projects costing tens of billions of dollars and for its laws criminalizing same-sex relations. But the Human Rights Subcommittee is quite optimistic about progress in the Gulf state.
Cozzolino, Tarabella and Arena applauded the labor reforms it made, but other lawmakers, notably from the Green and Liberal groups, and even a trade union representative who attended also echoed.
Looking forward to better times, S&D has nominated Marc Angel from Luxembourg to succeed Kaili. He faces a confirmation vote this week, but other groups have nominated their own candidates and it is unclear whether they will allow the center-left bloc to retain the coveted post.
So far, opposition groups have mostly avoided cheap attacks on S&D. Lawmakers, advisers and parliamentary insiders concede that such a scandal could well hit either side, given the porous rules and the consistent respect for them.
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