The European Parliament took a first step Tuesday in efforts to restore its credibility, amid allegations of corruption linked to World Cup host Qatar, moving to ditch one of its own vice presidents.
At the same time, in a first reaction since she was charged in a Belgian anti-graft probe, Greek socialist MEP Eva Kaili’s lawyer declared that she was innocent and “has nothing to do with Qatar’s bribes.”
But, as the 44-year-old former TV news presenter waited in a Brussels jail cell, her colleagues in the Strasbourg parliament were to vote to strip her of her vice president’s role.
The parliament’s president, Maltese conservative Roberta Metsola, convened the leaders of political groups before calling on MEPs to vote “on the early termination of office of Vice President Eva Kaili”.
Kaili’s fellow MEPs are scrambling to distance themselves from her.
On Wednesday a Belgian judge will decide whether to maintain her and three co-accused in custody pending her trial.
She was arrested last week during a series of raids on the homes and offices of several MEPs and their assistants or associates carried out by Belgian graft investigators.
– Bags of cash-
Belgian prosecutors said 600,000 euros ($630,000) were found at the home of one suspect, 150,000 euros at the flat of an MEP and several hundred thousand euros in a suitcase in a hotel room.
Some of these “bags of cash” were found in Kaili’s home, a judicial source said, leading a judge to conclude that, as she had apparently been caught red-handed her parliamentary immunity would not apply.
A Belgian judicial source told AFP that investigators believe that figures representing Gulf monarchy Qatar had been paying off European politicians to burnish the country’s image.
Qatar is a key energy supplier to Europe. But it has also been criticised for the alleged mistreatment of migrant workers, most notoriously those who built the World Cup stadiums.
Kaili visited Qatar just before the competition and called it a “front-runner in labour rights”. She has also defended Qatar’s quest to win EU visa waivers for its citizens.
Qatar has denied any involvement in European corruption. “Any claims of misconduct by the State of Qatar are gravely misinformed,” an official told AFP.
Kaili’s lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos told private Greek television channel Open TV: “Her position is she is innocent. She has nothing to do with Qatar’s bribes.”
Asked if any cash was found at Kaili’s home, Dimitrakopoulos said: “I am not confirming or denying. There is confidentiality. I have no idea if money was found or how much was found.”
But Brussels has been rocked by the claims, and Metsola, defending the integrity of the parliament, has sought to portray the alleged bribes as an assault on democracy.
Some MEPs braced for more revelations. “I’m fearful that what we’re seeing here is just the tip of the iceberg,” warned German social democrat Rene Repasi.
Metsola also promised to send Qatar’s EU visa waiver bid back to a parliamentary committee for further scrutiny, delaying or derailing the measure.
– Further allegations –
Kaili was one of six people arrested in the Belgian police raids. Four have been charged with “criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering” and two released.
One of those released was Luca Visentini, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, a global labour body that has pushed Qatar on labour rights.
“Should any further allegations be made, I look forward to the opportunity to refute them, as I am innocent of any wrongdoing,” he said in an ITUC statement.
The European Parliament was to vote on sacking Kaili from her vice president post later Tuesday and the measure was expected to receive the required two-thirds majority.
A second text, calling for more transparency to deter corruption in European institutions, will go to a vote on Thursday.