Qatargate: Corruption scandal widens with more EU lawmakers in frame
Maria Arena and Alessandra Moretti are mentioned in arrest warrant for another MEP, Andrea Cozzolino.
Belgium’s probe into alleged corruption and influence-buying by Qatar and Morocco in the European Parliament has widened, an international arrest warrant obtained by POLITICO shows.
MEPs Maria Arena and Alessandra Moretti are connected to the investigation being undertaken by Belgian prosecutors, according to the warrant for Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, who was arrested last week on charges of corruption, money-laundering and participation in a criminal organization. The warrant was issued on February 10 by Belgian investigative judge Michel Claise.
According to the document, Arena and Moretti were members of a “quadrumvirate,” along with Cozzolino and Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella, who was also arrested last week. The foursome, according to the warrant, did the bidding of former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, an alleged ringleader of the network operating in the European Parliament, who has made a plea deal with Belgian prosecutors.
The influence-buying scandal has rocked the EU capital, after Belgian authorities raided homes and offices in December 2022, amid allegations Qatar and Morocco handed out cash and gifts to secure favorable treatment in the European Parliament. In the months since, the institution, which often grandstands on rule-of-law and anti-corruption issues, has undergone a period of soul-searching as its leaders attempted to distance themselves from those implicated and enact reforms.
The saga has particularly shone a spotlight on the inner workings of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) — the group to which the implicated MEPs belonged. The S&D has excluded Tarabella, Cozzolino and former Parliament vice president Eva Kaili and responded in January with its own anti-corruption and transparency plan.
The warrant seen by POLITICO sheds light on the extent to which the corrupt network allegedly infiltrated the European Parliament.
In one example cited in the warrant, Arena and Moretti were said to have acted on Panzeri’s instructions during a meeting about a possible Parliament resolution on Qatar, in late 2021. Panzeri, who was at that stage no longer an MEP and didn’t attend the meeting himself, gave instructions to his former assistant, seeking to influence the possible resolution.
The plan and the identities of the members of the so-called quadrumvirate were revealed in text messages sent to Panzeri by his former assistant, Giuseppe Meroni, who was still working in the S&D group at the time, according to the warrant. Panzeri struck a plea deal with Belgian prosecutors last month to exchange information for a reduced sentence.
“Qatar resolved,” Meroni said in one text to his former boss Panzeri, according to the warrant. After the meeting, Panzeri received a briefing on what had gone on from Arena as well as Francesco Giorgi — another of his former assistants, who was by then working for Cozzolino. Giorgi is the partner of Kaili, the jailed former European Parliament vice president, and is himself now in prison.
“I can only say that it was a lawful exchange of information, as part of regular parliamentary political activity,” Meroni said in response to a POLITICO request for comment.
Moretti, the MEP identified in the warrant seen by POLITICO, denied the allegations. “I have never followed Mr Panzeri instructions in my political activity, no resolution has been discussed on December 2021.”
Unlike in the cases of Cozzolino and Tarabella, authorities haven’t asked the European Parliament to lift Arena and Moretti’s legal immunity, a step necessary to investigate or charge them. Arena declined to comment.
Arena has faced scrutiny over a trip to Doha in May 2022, after failing to declare on time that the Qatari government had paid for her flights and accommodation. Arena stepped down last month as chair of the Parliament’s human rights subcommittee — a role she succeeded Panzeri in. Moretti, meanwhile, on January 17 this year declared a subsidized trip to Qatar that took place in February 2020.
Morocco in the frame amid Pegasus spyware scandal
The warrant also highlights Morocco’s alleged role in the influence-buying scandal.
The document reveals that in an intercepted conversation, Panzeri and Giorgi discussed advancing Moroccan interests by placing either Cozzolino or Kaili on a special parliamentary committee investigating the use of Pegasus spyware to hack the phones of journalists, activists and politicians. Morocco, according to allegations in media reports, may have used the spyware to hack the Spanish government.
Cozzolino and Kaili were both made full members of the committee, though they have now lost those roles.
Cozzolino, who has repeatedly denied any wrong-doing, declined to comment.
Giorgi also managed to prevent Parliament from issuing a text that was unfavorable to Morocco, and informed Panzeri of this in May 2022, according to the warrant.
Two Moroccans considered crucial to the allegedly corrupt network are named in the arrest warrant: spy Mohamed Belahrech, codenamed M118 and known to European spy services for some time; and Abderrahim Atmoun, Rabat’s ambassador in Warsaw.
According to the warrant, Atmoun “played an important role” by handing out cash, and is thought to have worked “closely” with Moroccan intelligence and liaised with Belahrech.
Atmoun and Belahrech did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Western Sahara connection
According to the warrant, Morocco also attempted to influence the European Parliament’s position on the controversial issue of Western Sahara. The disputed territory is a former Spanish colony which for decades has been claimed both by Morocco and a rebel independence movement.
Spain, which had long remained neutral in the ongoing conflict, U-turned on its position last year, backing Rabat’s plan for limited autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. The move followed a year of increasing tensions between Madrid and Rabat, after one of the rebel movement’s leaders was permitted to travel to a Spanish hospital for treatment.
The Belgian arrest warrant says Cozzolino released a statement at the request of Atmoun and Panzeri in March 2022, backing Spain’s change of position on Western Sahara.
Jacopo Barigazzi and Elisa Braun contributed to this article.