Police surveillance, heaps of cash and a promise of reform: the week that rocked Brussels | European Union

Jhe police had been waiting since dawn. Officers from the special unit of the Belgian federal police gathered in rue Wiertz, a stone’s throw from the European Parliament in Brussels. The parliament, which likes to pass itself off as the house of European democracy, had been at the center of a months-long top-secret investigation. Investigators believed a Gulf country – unofficially confirmed to be Qatar – was trying to influence assembly decisions, using huge sums of money and lavish gifts. Now they were about to arrest the man they thought was at the center of the criminal plot.

It was Francesco Giorgi, an assistant in parliament. Charismatic and well-connected, the young Italian lived with his partner, Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise to become one of the 14 vice-presidents of parliament since her election in 2014. As soon as Giorgi left the building , the police surrounded him. His questioning – and the seizure of his phone – were deemed crucial to the investigation, according to Le Soir, which reported the details of his early morning arrest. By lunchtime last Friday, police had raided 16 properties in Brussels, arrested five others including Kaili, seized laptops, phones and hundreds of thousands of euros in cash. Two people were later released without charge.

The revelations, first broadcast by Belgian media, followed by a terse statement, exploded like a thunderclap on the European Parliament, which likes to brag about being the only directly elected EU institution. It was like a detective novel or a bad Netflix series, insiders said. MPs and staff were stunned, angry, in disbelief.

Francesco Giorgi and Eva Kaili. Photography: Eurokinissi/AFP/Getty Images

As the raids unfolded, Speaker of Parliament Roberta Metsola was briefed. She was in her home country of Malta, about to deliver a speech at a school, when she was asked to lift the inviolability of the premises of the European Parliament – ​​a measure which would allow the police to seal the offices belonging to Kaili and other suspects.

Within 36 hours, Metsola was back in Brussels and announced that she was stripping Kaili of her responsibilities. The following day, Sunday, the police charged Kaili, Giorgi and two others with money laundering, corruption and participation in a criminal organization. The suspects appeared before the investigating judge Michel Claise, renowned for deciphering complex fraud cases and writing detective stories, such as Insider Crime.

The European Parliament “is under attack,” Metsola said. Transparency campaigners countered that the institution weakened its defenses with lax internal rules, such as allowing MEPs will have a second job, secret expense reports and allowing foreign governments to sponsor so-called “friendship groups” and fund all-expenses-paid trips.

The shockwaves continued to reverberate as police released images of neatly stacked wads of 20, 50 and 100 euro notes found hidden in travel bags and luxury backpacks at several locations, including 150,000 € in Kaili’s apartment, €600,000 in the home of a former Italian MEP and €750,000 in his father’s Brussels hotel room.

Several hundred thousand euros found in the hotel room of Eva Kaili's father
Several hundred thousand euros were found in the hotel room of Eva Kaili’s father. Photograph: Federal Judicial Police/AFP/Getty Images

A former TV news presenter from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, Kaili was a glamorous figure in the European Parliament, who gained attention for her elegant dresses and smart handbags, as well as her interest in regulation technology and cryptocurrencies.

She and Giorgi were a golden couple. He was an amateur sailor, who filled her Instagram feed with images of him cruising crystal clear waters, sunsets on the beach and selfies on the ski slopes. Kaili’s stream showed her speaking at a blockchain conference in parliament, or looking drunk during a recent official visit to Oman, where she posed in front of a patterned wall wearing a scarf loosely covering her long blond hair. “Building bridges with our friendliest neighbors,” the caption read.

Kaili was Metsola’s representative in the Middle East. She was very interested in Qatar. Some colleagues dubbed her the spokesperson for the Qatar lobby. An MEP remembers having coffee with Kaili, when she asked for their help to “improve the language” on a resolution on Qatar and the World Cup. MPs will vote later to condemn the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in preparations for the World Cup and urge Qatar to carry out investigations. Kaili was unhappy with the text. “I just thought, OK, I don’t know why she’s interested in supporting Qatar,” the MEP said.

Greek MEP Eva Kaili meets Qatar's Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh al-Marri in Doha on October 31.
Kaili meets with Qatar’s Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh al-Marri in Doha on October 31. Photo: Qatar Ministry of Labour/AFP/Getty Images

During the debate on the resolution, she stunned her colleagues when she said Qatar was “a frontrunner when it comes to workers’ rights”, ignoring countless reports of the deaths of migrant workers. Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP, who chairs the parliamentary delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula, recalls that Kaili had “a strong position which was often the same as that which the Qatari ambassador would have”.

Speaking to the Guardian, Neumann recalled a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2020 when Kaili raised a question about a Qatari princess at every meeting – including when MEPs spoke to an organization providing humanitarian aid to starving people in Yemen. . “When he was given the floor, [she would] not asking about Yemen, but raising the question of the Qatari princess again. And I just thought she was a little naive, or just didn’t understand the context of the meeting,” Neumann said.

Another MEP, Erik Marquardt, who was in charge of the parliament’s position on a visa deal for Qatar (and three other states), says NPR that “it was very obvious that [Kaili] was very favorable to the very rapid granting of a visa waiver in Qatar with fewer conditions” but “was not so interested in other countries”.

Kaili, who is in a Brussels prison waiting to see if she can be released on bail before a trial, has claimed her innocence through her lawyer. Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, a regular face on Greek morning television this week, said his client would not be the Iphigenia of scandal, or the sacrificial lamb. Giorgi made no comment to the media.

Nearly 2,000 miles away in Athens, the money-for-influence scandal has not only stunned Greeks, but electrified a political scene already poised for next year’s general election. Kaili’s meteoric rise had been a source of pride for a nation still recovering from a protracted economic crisis.

“It’s a tragic affair,” said former deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos, who as the leader of Pasok played no small role in the former news anchor’s rise to prominence. the centre-left party. “Inconceivable politically, institutionally and morally.”

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