Guest Essay

It’s a Spectacular Scandal, and a Warning to Europe

The inside of the European Parliament. There is semicircle of raked seating filled with parliamentarians and a red filter over the image.
The European Parliament in session.Credit...Jean-Francois Badias/Associated Press

Mr. Clapp is a journalist based in Athens.

ATHENS — It’s like something out of a crime novel. On an early December morning last year, after months spent staking out residences and tapping phones, Belgian police officers raided dozens of places across Brussels. Over the next three days, in apartments and hotel rooms and offices, they seized laptops, cellphones and approximately 1.5 million euros, or $1.6 million, in cash.

By the next week, four people had been arrested on charges of corruption, including two representatives, one former and one present, of the European Parliament. Antonio Panzeri, a retired member from Italy, eventually admitted to being the scheme’s ringleader. Eva Kaili, a parliamentary vice president from Greece, continues to proclaim her innocence from a prison cell. Last month, two other members of Parliament were arrested in connection to the scandal.

As for the cash, all signs pointed to Qatar. Over the previous three years, Mr. Panzeri and Ms. Kaili had delivered one gushing sound bite after another on the Gulf state’s dubious human rights record. In 2019, Mr. Panzeri called the country “a reference” for human rights. In November 2022, one day after the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar, Ms. Kaili hailed it as a “front-runner in labor rights.” Though Qatar denied the allegations, the scandal soon acquired the name “Qatargate.”

The revelations are bad enough. More intriguing is what the scandal reveals about the European Parliament itself, the least consequential institution of the European Union. There is a reason Qatar most likely directed cash at members of a representative body that can propose no legislation on its behalf, commands no foreign policy of its own and garners scant attention even from those who vote it into office.

It was easy and cheap.

The European Parliament may be the only elected body of the world’s second-largest democratic electorate, but its powers have never been very substantial. Since 1958, it has operated on the margins of Europe’s Council and Commission — the two institutions that form the bloc’s executive body — existing largely to amend their laws, approve their budgets and occasionally veto their proposals. It was not, to put it mildly, any grand stage of democratic deliberation.

But by the early 2000s, as the bloc introduced a common currency and began absorbing former Communist states to its east, it seemed possible that the European Parliament could evolve into Europe’s answer to America’s Congress: a muscular institution that would supersede local parliaments and draw large numbers of Europeans to the polls.

It never happened. The body remains poorly known and less discussed. Since it's unable to draft legislation or regulate taxes or conduct foreign policy, its concerns relate less to “politics” — big questions about how Europeans should live and work — than to “policy,” often of a narrowly technocratic nature. A typical parliamentary agenda consists of specialized committees deliberating on issues such as cellphone roaming fees and clean aviation.

Even so, money flows through Brussels, as it does in any seat of government. And Parliament’s history shows it to be serially vulnerable to corruption. The most notorious incident occurred in 2006, when an audit of more than 160 members revealed astonishing abuses of power, such as inflated salaries and no-show jobs. The body spent years attempting to bury the report, but similar stories continued to surface.

In response, greater transparency was pledged. Yet to this day the cash-for-influence industry in Brussels remains unusually — perhaps deliberately — murky. Many of its 12,000 lobbyists may be familiar names, but no rules dictate whom many Parliament members can meet or whether they need to publicize those meetings; there are merely “recommendations.” As recently as 2018, members voted down measures that would require disclosing how exactly their work gets done — including, for instance, how and where they use their monthly expenses.

In part, that’s surely because being a member of Parliament is widely treated as a transitional position. Attendance is poor, turnover high and conflicts of interest difficult to untangle, let alone eradicate, in a body in which one-fourth of its members admit to working a second job. When they do retire, a third of them shuttle out to better-paying lobbying firms.

Image
Antonio Panzeri in 2018.Credit...Stephanie Lecocq/EPA, via Shutterstock

Elected to Parliament in 2004, Mr. Panzeri is a one-man illustration of the dangers of such a permissive atmosphere. In 2018, as head of the subcommittee on human rights, he pioneered a “cooperation understanding” with Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. After his retirement a year later, Mr. Panzeri moved to the private sector and founded a nongovernmental organization called Fight Impunity. He set it up in an attractive townhouse in Brussels next to the British ambassador’s residence and decorated its honorary board with E.U. stalwarts, including a former foreign policy chief and a former migration commissioner.

Within months, Fight Impunity began organizing conferences and publishing earnest reports on the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the Rohingya genocide. Such activities were, to be sure, legal. The problem is that beneath the veneer of credibility, Mr. Panzeri was running a shady side operation. It reportedly first involved Morocco, which had begun courting Mr. Panzeri during his time in Parliament.

The details are not yet verified, and the legal case is still pending Mr. Panzeri’s full confession to the Belgian authorities. But according to the testimony of Ms. Kaili’s partner — a former parliamentary assistant to Mr. Panzeri and a co-founder of Fight Impunity Mr. Panzeri set up the organization for the explicit purpose of processing bundles of Qatari cash that began arriving in Brussels in 2019. Far from fighting impunity, Mr. Panzeri was apparently responsible for a series of speeches over the next three years attempting to bestow it.

The striking thing about Qatargate isn’t even the dishonesty of the alleged scheme. It’s the nothing-to-see-here candor of it all. Mr. Panzeri and Ms. Kaili hung out evidence of their wrongdoing like so many articles of drying laundry. Neither bothered moving the cash to a place where a quick police search could not find it. Mr. Panzeri kept some of it in a suitcase beneath his bed. Ms. Kaili — who styles herself one of Europe’s staunchest proponents of cryptocurrency — stashed it among her daughter’s diapers.

For Qatar, the deal was no doubt too good to turn down. For a price amounting to about half an hour’s worth of natural gas revenue, representatives of a parliament that routinely pillories the human rights records of states like Haiti and Belarus anointed Qatar a humanitarian standout. For years now, the Gulf state has been expanding its influence, at much greater cost and out in the open. In Britain it controls more London real estate than the crown. In France it has purchased the country’s most popular soccer team. And in the United States it has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on election campaigns, donated hundreds of millions to universities and pledged to inject billions into infrastructure.

The difference between billions of dollars passed through banks and real estate companies and millions of euros lodged in closets and suitcases is perhaps one of aesthetics. But the scandal is a lesson, a warning even, to Brussels. Even in the more rudimentary elements of statecraft — regulating foreign influence and constraining outside interests — Europe still has a long way to go.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist who has written for, among other publications, The London Review of Books, Foreign Policy and The Economist.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.