Who is who in the European Parliament corruption scandal?

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By Jorge Liboreiro  & Maria Psara
From left to right: Pier Antonio Panzeri, Eva Kaili and Andrea Cozzolino.
From left to right: Pier Antonio Panzeri, Eva Kaili and Andrea Cozzolino.   -  Copyright  European Union, 2022.

The corruption scandal engulfing the European Parliament widens and thickens by the day.

Bombshell media reports, closed-door hearings, leaked confessions and defiant statements from criminal lawyers are adding new twists and turns to the increasingly convoluted story.

At the very centre of the scandal lies a cash-for-favours scheme involving, according to the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office, "large sums of money" and "substantial gifts" paid by a country in the Persian Gulf, widely identified as Qatar, with the aim to influence the European Union's policy-making.

Morocco has in recent weeks emerged as an alleged player in the graft operation. Both Qatar and Morocco vigorously deny the allegations.

So far, four individuals have been arrested and charged with "participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption," the prosecutor has said. The four remain in prison.

Meanwhile, up to €1.5 million in cash have been seized by the Belgian police across dozens of home and office searches, in addition to the requisitioning of parliamentary computers to prevent the erasure of key data.

If you are trying to make sense of this dizzying labyrinth, Euronews offers you a handy who-is-who guide of the main characters involved in the corruption scandal, dubbed Qatargate.

Eva Kaili

European Union, 2022.
Eva KailiEuropean Union, 2022.

Eva Kaili is the name on everyone's lips in Brussels.

The Greek MEP was considered, until her arrest on 9 December, a rising star among the ranks of the socialist group (S&D). Known as media-friendly and approachable, Kaili was first elected to the European Parliament in 2014, running with the centre-left PASOK party, and was re-elected in 2019. 

In January 2022, the 44-year-old was named one of the parliament's 14 vice presidents, a culmination of her legislative work in digital topics such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and blockchain.

Since her shocking detainment, Kaili has been expelled from PASOK, suspended from the S&D group and removed as vice-president.

Technically speaking, she is now a non-attached MEP, with a post-tax salary of €7,146 per month. It's unclear if she remains entitled to the additional €4,778 monthly allowance.

Although Kaili was mostly focused on the EU's digital agenda, in early November she travelled to Qatar and held one-on-one meetings with the country's top leaders, including the prime minister.

Weeks later, she delivered a speech before the plenary defending Qatar's labour rights in the context of the controversial FIFA World Cup. In early December, she voted in favour of visa liberation for Qatari citizens.

Up to €150,000 in cash are suspected of having been found in her Brussels home, which she shared with her life partner, Francesco Giorgi, and their 22-month-old daughter.

Kaili's lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, has emphatically defended her client's innocence, arguing she called the Belgian police as soon as she heard of Giorgi's arrest by Belgian newspapers – even though Giorgi was not identified by name in the initial media reports.

"She was unaware that there was something illegal in her house, otherwise she wouldn’t have called the police," Dimitrakopoulos told Euronews. "But it wasn’t possible because the police did not speak English and then all the developments happened.”

Francesco Giorgi

LinkedIn.
Francesco Giorgi.LinkedIn.

Francesco Giorgi is Eva Kaili's domestic partner and one of the suspected key players in the scandal.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Giorgi holds a degree in political science from the University of Milan and has been working as an accredited parliamentary assistant since 2009.

Giorgi began his career in the hemicycle as an assistant to Pier Antonio Panzeri, a socialist MEP from Italy, and moved in 2019 to the office of Andrea Cozzolino, another Italian socialist. During his time in Brussels, the 35-year-old became romantically involved with Eva Kaili, then a member of the S&D group.

Under the leadership of both Panzeri and Cozzolino, Giorgi worked in the parliament's delegation for relations with Maghreb countries, known as DMAG, which covers Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia.

Since his arrest in December, Giorgi is believed to have adopted a collaborative attitude with the Belgian authorities, sharing revealing details on how the behind-the-scenes graft developed.

According to documents obtained by Le Soir and La Repubblica, Francesco Giorgi has confessed to being part of an "organisation" used by Qatar and Morocco to influence European policy-making. The Italian assistant has tried to exonerate Kaili by accusing his former boss, Andrea Cozzolino, and Marc Tarabella of accepting cash through Panzeri's management. 

Giorgi acted as translator for Panzeri, who does not speak English, during meetings with Qatari officials that were intercepted by the Belgian police, Le Soir reported.

Kaili's lawyer says she feels "betrayed" by her partner because Giorgi's supposed participation in the criminal scheme turned the Greek MEP, by extension, into an accomplice.

Pier Antonio Panzeri

European Union, 2018.
Pier Antonion Panzeri.European Union, 2018.

A three-term socialist MEP, Pier Antonio Panzeri is suspected of being the prime intermediary between the European Parliament and the cash allegedly offered by Qatar and Morocco.

First elected in 2004, Panzeri focused his time as a European legislator on employment, social rights, foreign affairs, global security and development aid.

He chaired the delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries from 2009 to 2017. He then became chair of the subcommittee on human rights, a position he held until he left the parliament in 2019.

As a former MEP, Panzeri had the right to a permanent access badge to the parliament's premises.

In September 2019, mere months after the European elections, Panzeri founded a non-profit organisation in Brussels called Fight Impunity, whose stated purpose is to "promote the fight against impunity for serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity."

Fight Impunity, which does not appear on the EU's Transparency Register — a database on which individuals and organisations that try to influence the EU's law-making and policy implementation process are supposed to be listed on — shares the same address as another NGO, No Peace Without Justice.

Both Kaili and Giorgi have pointed the finger at Panzeri as the manager behind the money exchanges. Over €600,000 in cash was reportedly found at his home.

In mid-January, Panzeri signed a so-called "repentance agreement" with the Belgian authorities to share "revealing" and "substantial" details about the corruption network, including the modus operandi, key participants and financial arrangements with foreign countries.

As part of the deal, Panzeri admitted his participation in bribery and will receive a five-year prison sentence, part of which will be suspended, his lawyer told Euronews.

Belgian authorities believe Panzeri's wife, Maria Dolores Colleoni, and daughter, Silvia Panzeri, were aware of the illicit lobbying and have requested their extradition from Italy. The two women deny the accusations.

Niccolò Figà-Talamanca

Niccolò Figà-Talamanca is the secretary-general of No Peace Without Justice, a non-profit organisation dedicated to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, with attention to the Middle East and North Africa.

Both No Peace Without Justice and Fight Impunity are suspected of being exploited to launder money.

Since his arrest, Figà-Talamanca remains self-suspended from the job.

Little is known about the NGO director, besides his array of international diplomas, an appointment as visiting scholar in New York and a short stint at the International Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia.

Figà-Talamanca is one of the four people who have been officially charged as part of the Belgian investigation, together with Kaili, Giorgi and Panzeri. He was initially released with an electronic bracelet but the decision was later reversed and he was sent back to prison.

"We want to state our absolute certainty of the fairness of his work and his non-involvement in any wrongdoing," his family said in a statement. "We are sure that by the end of the investigation (...) Niccolo's position will be clarified and that he will be cleared of any accusation."

Marc Tarabella

European Union, 2022.
Marc Tarabella.European Union, 2022.

Marc Tarabella is a Belgian MEP who sat with the socialist group since his election in 2004 until the eruption of the corruption scandal in December, when his membership was suspended.

Tarabella has not been charged nor detained. His house was reportedly raided by police in the presence of European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.

Belgian authorities have requested the lifting of his parliamentary immunity, which protects MEPs from inquiry and detention unless they are caught in the act of a crime.

As MEP, Tarabella sits on several committees, including the delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula.

In November, Tarabella defended Qatar's labour rights in the context of the FIFA World Cup, using similar arguments to those voiced by Eva Kaili in the same plenary session.

"Much progress remains to be made, but (Qatar) is still the country that has embarked on the path of reform," Tarabella said, speaking in French.

"What is important is that, when the lights of the World Cup have gone out, the positive evolution continues not only in Qatar, but it can spread to all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula."

His lawyer has defended his innocence and said Tarabella is in favour of being stripped of his immunity. The lawyer also admitted the 59-year-old MEP had failed to declare a working trip he made to Qatar in 2020.

Andrea Cozzolino

European Union, 2019.
Andrea CozzolinoEuropean Union, 2019.

Andrea Cozzolino is an Italian MEP, first elected in 2019.

He belonged to the socialist group until his suspension in December, when he was also asked to step down as chair of the delegation for relations with Maghreb countries.

Cozzolino, though, remains a titular member of that delegation and of the subcommittee on human rights.

In his leaked confession, Francesco Giorgi directly accused Cozzolino, his former boss, and Tarabella of accepting money from Qatar and Morocco through Panzeri.

Cozzolino has not been charged nor arrested. Belgian authorities have requested the lifting of his immunity. "I'm ready to protect my integrity and my reputation in every venue," the MEP told Italian media.

Other alleged players

Besides these six names, there is a wider range of secondary characters.

During the December raids, two additional men were detained and then released: Eva Kaili's father, Alexandros Kailis, who was reportedly caught with a suitcase full of cash at Sofitel hotel in Brussels; and Luca Visentini, secretary-general of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who admitted to accepting a €50,000 donation from Fight Impunity.

The name of Belgian MEP Maria Arena has also gained prominence after the office of her assistant was sealed by Belgian police. Arena has denied any connection with Qatar and has used social media to criticise journalists for their reporting. After it became clear she had failed to declare paid-for trips to the Gulf country, she resigned from her position as chair of the parliament's subcommittee on human rights.

Arena's supposedly close relationship with fellow socialist Panzeri has attracted the attention of Belgian media.

Scrutiny has also turned to Abderrahim Atmoun, Morocco's Ambassador to Poland, who, according to documents obtained by Le Soir and la Repubblica, was in contact with Giorgi, Panzeri and Cozzolino.

The documents also suggest that agents from Morocco's foreign intelligence agency, known as DGED (Direction Générale des Études et de la Documentation), were equally involved.

Morocco has denied the claims, calling them "repeated media attacks" and "legal harassment."