Who is who in the European Parliament corruption scandal?

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.
By Jorge LiboreiroMaria Psara
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The so-called Qatargate continues to send shockwaves across Brussels as new twists and turns mount.

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

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

At the very centre of the scandal lies a cash-for-favours scheme involving "large" sums of money and "substantial" gifts allegedly paid by Qatar and Morocco to influence decision-making inside the European Parliament.

Both Qatar and Morocco deny any wrongdoing, calling the claims unfounded.

Since the probe came to light in mid-December, the Belgian authorities have arrested and charged five individuals with participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption.

The five suspects have been gradually released from jail but remain charged and under pre-trial detention with various degrees of surveillance.

A sixth individual is fighting extradition from Italy to Belgium.

Over €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.

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, to discuss bilateral relations.

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, Kaili voted in favour of visa liberation for Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens.

Following her shocking arrest on 9 December, Kaili was expelled from PASOK, suspended from the S&D group and removed as vice-president.

Several bags full of cash are believed to have been found in her Brussels home, which she shared with her life partner, Francesco Giorgi, and their 22-month-old daughter.

Kaili's lawyers have 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.

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The Greek lawmaker was granted her release from prison on 12 April after four months behind bars. She was given an electronic bracelet and moved to house arrest.

She will live separately from Giorgi during the remainder of her detention, her lawyer said.

Technically speaking, Kaili is now a non-attached MEP, with a post-tax salary of €7,146 per month.

She remains entitled to only half of her €4,778 monthly allowance because she can no longer attend plenary sessions in person, a spokesperson from the European Parliament confirmed.

Francesco Giorgi

LinkedIn.
Francesco Giorgi.LinkedIn.

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

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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 key details on how the behind-the-scenes graft developed.

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

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

Kaili's lawyers have blamed Giorgi for involving the lawmaker in his allegedly secret dealings with Panzeri and for turning her into an unwitting victim.

Giorgi was released from prison in late February and given an electronic bracelet.

He was immediately fired after the scandal erupted and lost his job in the European Parliament.

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.

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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.

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Both Kaili and Giorgi have pointed the finger at Panzeri as the manager behind the money exchanges. 

In mid-January, Panzeri signed a so-called "repentance agreement" with 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 to his participation in bribery and will receive a five-year prison sentence, part of which will be suspended, his lawyer told Euronews.

The defence teams of the other arrested individuals have challenged Panzeri's credibility as a witness, fearing their claims might play against their clients.

Panzeri was released from prison in early April and put under house arrest with an electronic bracelet.

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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 were arrested in the December raids, together with Kaili, Giorgi and Panzeri.

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"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."

Figà-Talamanca was released from prison without conditions in early February but he remains criminally charged as part of the probe.

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 was also part of the parliament's delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula, which covers Qatar.

In November last year, he delivered a short speech before the plenary defending Qatar's labour reforms in the context of the controversial FIFA World Cup and blasting the "unilateral negative discourse" against the Gulf country.

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The following month, the Belgian lawmaker voted in favour of a visa waiver for Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens, a file that has since then been put on hold.

He later admitted he had failed to declare a working trip he made to Qatar in 2020.

Tarabella emerged as a potential suspect in the early weeks of the scandal but he was not immediately detained, as Kaili and Panzeri were. Belgian authorities requested the lifting of his immunity, a key move that MEPs endorsed in early February.

This paved the way for his detention and the raid of several offices inside the town hall of Anthisnes, a small French-speaking town in which the MEP serves as mayor.

Tarabella was then charged with participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering.

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His lawyer insists he is innocent and has never taken any money from Panzeri in exchange for his work on Qatar-related issues. The lawyer tried and fail to obtain the dismissal of Michel Claise, the investigating judge, claiming he was biased and had infringed Tarabella's presumption of innocence. 

Tarabella was granted his release from prison on 11 April and given an electronic bracelet.

"I am relieved to be able to join my family. This period was a real ordeal," he said after his release. "I repeat: I have nothing to reproach myself for and, of course, I remain at the entire disposal of the investigators if they have any other questions."

Andrea Cozzolino

European Union, 2019.
Andrea CozzolinoEuropean Union, 2019.

Andrea Cozzolino is an Italian MEP, first elected in 2009.

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, a body that covers Morocco.

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Like Tarabella, Cozzolino emerged as a potential suspect in December but was not apprehended until his parliamentary immunity was lifted in February.

This led to his arrest in Naples by Italian police under a European arrest warrant, while the MEP was leaving a health clinic.

Cozzolino remains under house arrest as he fights an extradition request. His hearing before a Naples court has been delayed three times.

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

Cozzolino's lawyer has repeatedly denied these claims and says his client is "calm" and ready to defend his innocence before the judicial system. The lawyer also opposes the lawmaker's extradition to Belgium, arguing the overcrowded conditions in Belgian prisons could have a detrimental effect on Cozzolino's health.

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Other alleged players

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

During the December raids, two additional men were detained and then released without charges: 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 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 MEP Pier Antonio 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.

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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."

This article is regularly updated to include the latest developments in the case.

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