European parliament may ban Qatari officials from premises

The European parliament will consider banning Qatari officials from its premises in response to a “cash for influence” investigation that has become the biggest scandal in the institution’s history.

The parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, said the assembly’s senior leaders would discuss a possible ban and that a “wide-ranging reform” package would be implemented in response to a Belgian police investigation that has led to four people being charged with money laundering and corruption, including a serving MEP.

Asked whether she would ban representatives of Qatar or other government officials implicated in the scandal from the parliament, Metsola said: “That is one of the questions I will put to the conference of presidents immediately,” referring to the parliament’s top leadership body.

Qatar has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the investigation in which police have seized nearly €1.5m (£1.3m) in cash from Brussels properties.

MEPs have spoken of how they were offered free trips and World Cup tickets to visit the Gulf state, which has been seeking to neutralise criticism of its treatment of migrant workers. Metsola said she had also been invited to the World Cup, but “I refused because I have concerns about that country”.

Banning government officials from European parliament premises is a rare step, although representatives of Russian companies, many with ties to the Kremlin, have been barred from the assembly’s buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg since June because of the war against Ukraine.

Metsola was speaking at an EU summit in Brussels, where she discussed the scandal with the bloc’s 27 leaders. “There will be no immunity, no sweeping things under the carpet, there will be no business as usual,” she told journalists as she arrived.

She was thanked at the summit for her frankness in discussing the issue and received “full support” from EU leaders, one EU source said.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said: “I think we need to know the facts, understand who is implicated and then take the appropriate measures.”

At a press conference, Metsola promised to publish reform proposals in the new year, including “a ban on all unofficial friendship groups”, which are sometimes sponsored by lobbyists and foreign governments. There was, she said, not enough monitoring or control of these groups, including on who pays for travel.

The parliament does not know how many friendship groups exist and has said they have no official status. Some MEPs have expressed frustration that foreign countries see a friendship group as the voice of the parliament, rather than official committees and delegations, which are subject to rules on membership and much greater scrutiny.

On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the MEP leading the Bahrain friendship group had failed to declare a trip to the country and had been criticised for a one-sided proposal on a human-rights activist that echoed the talking points of the Gulf state.

The European parliament’s friendship group with Qatar was suspended after the scandal broke.

The parliament would take an “in-depth look on how we interact with third countries”, Metsola said, adding that MEPs and their assistants would have to record meetings with foreign government representatives on a transparency register, or face sanctions for non-compliance.

Officials would also take a closer look at non-government organisations on the transparency register, after it emerged that some purported campaign groups appeared to be fronts for authoritarian governments.

On Wednesday, the MEP at the centre of the scandal, the Greek Socialist Eva Kaili, learned that a hearing on whether to grant her bail would be delayed until next week. Two other suspects remain in pre-trial detention, including Kaili’s partner, Francesco Giorgi, who is a parliamentary assistant to a different MEP. A third person has been released with an electronic tag.

Speaking on ANT 1 TV, Kaili’s Athens-based lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, said his client would not become the scandal’s “Iphighenia”, or sacrificial victim. Her only link to the bags full of bank notes that had been found in her Brussels home was that she was there at the time, he insisted.

“The inquiry that has been ongoing for many months has not shown she had any relationship with the money or any suspicious conversations,” he said. “Her partner is the person who brought the money into her house.”

The lawyer said that when Kaili learned of the hoard and “did not receive a persuasive answer”, she asked her father, Alexandros, who was in the Belgian capital, to take the bank notes to the person to whom they belonged. The Greek civil servant was arrested with the suitcase before making the handover.

Referring to the influence-peddling revelations, Dimitrakopoulos said: “The money in the house has no connection whatsoever to her [Kaili’s] statements about Qatar. All of Mrs Kaili’s actions and initiatives were taken with the approval of the European parliament. Mrs Kaili did not have a personal agenda.”

Fallout over the scandal intensified on Thursday as judicial authorities in Greece announced a separate investigation into possible money laundering and bribery involving Kaili. The investigation came days after Greek authorities froze all assets belonging to Kaili and her immediate family.

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