How Qatar secretly bound itself to the European Parliament
In February 2020, Eva Kaili, the high-flying vice president of the European Parliament, moderated a conversation concerning social media companies and democracy at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Qatar's capital, Doha.
"We see always efforts of political interference among member states, even in Europe," she continued, turning to her co-panelist. Kaili lowered her gaze to her notes. She inquired, "How do you feel in this country and [its] role in the stability of the whole region?"
Former EU commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos responded in a laudatory manner, "The country that is hosting us today has made a great progress during the last years."
This conversational excerpt from a two-day meeting would have been overlooked at the time. Yet, when heard today, the praise seems ironic. Kaili is incarcerated as a result of a high-octane corruption scandal engulfing the EU establishment in Brussels, in which Qatar and Morocco are suspected of bribing EU politicians to influence the functioning of Parliament.
The conference was not completely unexpected. Two years earlier, the alleged mastermind of the corruption scheme, then-Parliament member Pier Antonio Panzeri, signed a semi-official collaboration agreement with an organization with ties to the Qatari government. This document has now been obtained.
The agreement, which Panzeri signed as head of the Parliament's human rights subcommittee, linked the EU body with Qatar's own human rights commission. It included annual "projects" and the exchange of "experiences and expertise." The language created the framework for years of collaboration, including conferences and legislative trips to Doha, with Qatar footing the bill for business class flights and lavish hotel accommodations.
Interestingly, according to the Parliament, the agreement does not technically exist. Despite Panzeri's assurances, the memo never reached parliamentarians for assessment, nor did it go through any formal channels of approval.
"The European Parliament has no official knowledge of the document you refer to," a spokesperson from the press services of the European Parliament said.
Yet, the document exists, demonstrating how a foreign nation was able to establish extensive ties with EU MPs and a European Parliament committee without ever setting off formal alarm bells in the organization.
Monika Hohlmeier, a senior member of the European Parliament from the center-right European People's Party (EPP) who chairs the budgetary control committee, stated, "this is problematic. It shows that we should be much more aware of what is happening."
Someone with understanding of how the human rights committee (known as DROI) operates said, "This is extraordinary."
Qatar has always claimed that any charges of influence in the EU's operations are false.
During a DROI committee meeting in Brussels on April 26, 2018, Panzeri signed the agreement with Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, chairman of Qatar's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). On its website, the NHRC states that it enjoys "complete independence" from the Qatari government.
Al Marri, addressing a handful of MEPs in a virtually empty room, argued that the Qatari government had made "tremendous strides" on human rights reforms, while recognizing that it was not yet adequate. After a diplomatic dispute that resulted in "human rights violations," he criticized Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations for applying what he termed "collective sanctions."
At the conclusion of the hour-long committee discussion, Panzeri made a brief reference to a "consultation and cooperation document that we will sign today and we will provide to the members of the DROI subcommittee."
Nevertheless, they did not receive it.
Petras Auštrevičius, a Lithuanian liberal MEP who led his group's work on human rights at the time, stated, "It has never happened." Barbara Lochbihler and Marie-Christine Vergiat, two former MEPs with coordinating responsibilities on the committee, both indicated they had no recollection of such an agreement.
Auštrevičius stated that, according to standard procedure, even the decision to invite Al Marri to speak the committee that day had not been approved by his fellow MEPs.
"It seems that the Chair [Panzeri] decided to invite [Al Marri] following a recent private visit to Qatar, which I was not aware of," Auštrevičius explained.
The day the agreement was struck, Panzeri had just returned to Brussels from a trip to Qatar with his legislative assistant, Francesco Giorgi.
Panzeri visited then-Qatari Prime Minister Abdullah Bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, his human rights counterpart Al Marri, and commended Qatar's labor reforms before to the World Cup, according to a media report that Panzeri retweeted.
Al Marri would become Qatar's labor minister as criticism of Doha's treatment of migrant workers constructing the World Cup stadiums grew worldwide.
Giorgi, Panzeri's assistant, would be arrested with his boss and Kaili in the initial round of arrests conducted by the authorities. The three individuals have been accused with corruption, money laundering, and participation in a criminal organization.
Panzeri has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors, admitting to bribing MEPs in exchange for a sentence reduction. The partners Kaili and Giorgi deny any misconduct. Panzeri and Kaili's attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
Parliament officials are still baffled nearly five years later as to how such an agreement could have been reached. Even the actual signing is cloaked in secrecy.
According to the press services of the Parliament, the agreement was signed in Panzeri's office. A photograph of the signing, however, reveals the presence of an EU Parliament employee as well as the EU and Qatari flags. A second individual acquainted with the committee's work stated that the signing took place in one of the official protocol chambers of the Parliament, which are typically utilized by foreign delegations.
The actual text of the agreement is unclear and jargon-filled.
On a single sheet of A4 paper, it states, "It has been decided to continue the bilateral activity through a consultation and cooperation understanding between the two parties."
"This understanding, aims at regulating and facilitating the relations between the NHRC and DROI through the promotion of closer cooperation, the exchange of bilateral expertise, information and contacts regarding human rights."
In 2019, one year after "this understanding" was struck, Qatar co-hosted its first conference in Doha with the Parliament, or at least with the Parliament's logo prominently displayed. The subject: fighting impunity
Panzeri lauded Qatar as a "reference point" for global human rights standards during the meeting. Panzeri was mentioned in the Gulf Times as noting that the conference was a direct result of his 2019 deal. Later, "fight impunity" would even become the name of Panzeri's non-governmental organization.
Later, on February 16 and 17, Doha hosted the 2020 meeting, which was presumably co-organized with the European Parliament. The new topic is "Social media, challenges and ways to promote freedoms and protect activists."
The official of the Parliament's press services denied that the event was co-organized, stating, "it was not an event of the institution, but we still have to investigate how they could use the logo [of the Parliament]."
The Qataris covered the cost of business class flights, hotel accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton, and a supper at the national museum of Qatar for the 300 conference delegates.
Kaili was not the only prominent EU politician present.
After she concluded her role as moderator, Kaili complimented Panzeri for "organizing actually this delegation."
Panzeri, who had resigned from the parliament in 2019, sat in the first row next to his now-arrested assistant, Giorgi.
In attendance was Socialist and Democrat (S&D) politician Marc Tarabella, who was arrested last week as the police investigation expands. Prosecutors in Belgium allege that Tarabella accepted up to €140,000 in cash from Panzeri in order to influence EU activities on Qatar.
Maxim Toller, Tarabella's attorney, denied Panzeri coordinated the trip: "It’s not Mr. Panzeri. … Well, he was on the trip."
Tarabella did not reveal the funded trip until last month, years after the deadline imposed by Parliament. Tarabella provided several explanations for the late declaration, including that he believed it to be impossible. More generally, he has asserted his innocence in the corruption investigation.
Alessandra Moretti, a member of the S&D, and Cristian-Silviu Bușoi, a member of the EPP, similarly failed to disclose their subsidized attendance until the corruption investigation was made public.
"It was an event sponsored by the European Parliament, so the Parliament was aware of the event and of my participation," Moretti explained. "In the spirit of full transparency, I decided to publish it ." She denied being a member of a delegation established by Panzeri.
Bușoi, who oversaw the unofficial "friendship group" between the Parliament and Qatar, stated, "The 2020 event was declared later due to a staff error." He also denied being a member of any delegation organized by Panzeri.
As Panzeri left the Parliament in 2019, S&D politician Maria Arena replaced him as chair of the DROI committee. She said in January that she had not renewed Panzeri's deal.
Nonetheless, the conferences continued.
In addition to the event in 2020, Arena attended an NHRC workshop in Qatar on Qatar's dime in 2022. She ultimately resigned as committee chair after media revealed Arena's failure to report the sponsored trip on time. Arena did not respond to a request for comment.
And despite the uncertainty surrounding the agreement, one thing is clear: For Qatar, it never ceased to exist.
Al Marri wrote in May 2021 to two EU legislators, including Arena, "The relationship with the European Parliament is of utmost importance to us."