Corruption probe looms over Europe’s conservatives as election season begins

Corruption probe looms over Europe’s conservatives as election season begins
Опубликовано: Thursday, 06 April 2023 05:12

Socialists see rival EPP’s trouble as payback for Qatargate attacks.

European conservatives are facing a potential political headache as the 2024 European Parliament election campaign gets underway.

The man that European People’s Party chief Manfred Weber hired to run his digital campaign for the 2019 European election is now at the center of a pan-European corruption probe.

A monthslong investigation spread from the central German state of Thuringia to the EPP’s headquarters on Rue du Commerce in Brussels on Tuesday, when Belgian police joined their German counterparts in a raid.

They were on the hunt for information about Mario Voigt, 46, who leads the center-right Christian Democratic Union in Thuringia’s parliament. The public prosecutor’s office in Erfurt is investigating Voigt over suspicion of corruption in business dealings, according to media reports.

The metastasizing probe comes just months after the EPP went after the Socialists and Democrats group — its main political rival in the upcoming European Parliament elections — over the separate Qatargate corruption scandal, where overwhelmingly center-left EU lawmakers are in focus for allegedly taking bribes from countries like Morocco and Qatar.

Ignoring a plea from Parliament President Roberta Metsola not to score points from the scandal, just days after the first arrests the EPP tweeted a flurry of invective, saying that “the holier-than-thou S&D group is at the epicenter” of the scandal. EPP’s party boss Thanasis Bakolas broke ranks to slam the S&D, describing Qatargate as a “socialist problem.”

But now, the tables have turned.

“The feeling is that the EPP has been playing a bit dirty and this is karma coming back to them,” said an S&D official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Null and Voigt

In March 2019, Weber appointed Voigt as his digital campaign manager for some months, making him responsible for online electioneering across the bloc. That campaign ended with the EPP as the largest contingent in the European Parliament.

In the run-up to the election, a company based in the Thuringian city of Jena specializing in political campaigns was hired to handle the EPP’s digital campaign. One of the company’s managing directors had formerly worked for the CDU in Thuringia, where he developed an app together with Voigt and others.

Although formerly public references to the EPP campaign have disappeared from the company’s website, POLITICO was able to view an archived version confirming this.

In early May 2022, the corruption department of the public prosecutor’s office in Erfurt initiated an investigation. According to German media, this included a request to the state parliament to lift Voigt’s immunity after his name came up in an investigation into CDU Bundestag member Mark Hauptmann, who made money from mask deals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hauptmann was probed over bribery, although that investigation was later dropped.

Erfurt investigators are following an initial suspicion that contract payments have been made from a company to Voigt, confirmed Hannes Grünseisen, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in the Thuringian capital Erfurt.

Grünseisen added that any official outcome from Brussels could take time, as Belgian authorities have yet to hand over any confiscated material to the German authorities.

Authorities had already searched several houses and business premises in October last year.

Belgian police were carrying out a search warrant based on a so-called European Investigation Order. A spokesperson from the Brussels public prosecutor’s office declined to comment. As of this point, specific charges remain unclear.

Just a ‘regional’ issue?

In a public statement, the EPP has sought to downplay Tuesday’s raid as police merely “visiting” the headquarters. According to media reports, the German prosecutor said no EPP employees are being investigated.

“I don’t think it will have consequences,” said an EPP official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “I feel like this is more of a regional, German story. I see it as something that’s centered on the dealing of one person,” said the official in reference to Voigt.

But it seems this investigation yet has the capacity to blow up.

“EPP has urgently to clarify what was going on. If there were breaches of European or national law, consequences have to be taken,” German Social Democrat MEP Udo Bullmann wrote to POLITICO.

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