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EU credibility at stake in European Parliament graft probe, ministers say

EU credibility at stake in European Parliament graft probe, ministers say
LUSAIL CITY, QATAR - NOVEMBER 30: A General view inside the stadium during the pre match ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Saudi Arabia and Mexico at Lusail Stadium on November 30, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Dec 12 (Reuters) - The European Union's credibility is at stake, EU foreign ministers warned on Monday, following allegations Qatar lavished cash and gifts on European Parliament officials to influence decision-making.

Greece on Monday froze the assets of a key suspect in the case, Eva Kaili, a vice president in the European Parliament and one of four people arrested and charged in Belgium over the weekend, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

Kaili’s office did not respond to a request for a comment. Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.

Belgian prosecutors searched 16 houses and seized 600,000 euros ($631,800) in Brussels on Friday as part of the probe.

Four people were subsequently charged with “participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption,” prosecutors said in a statement on Sunday.

They did not name the suspects, but the European Parliament said at the weekend it had suspended Kaili from her duties, while the Greek socialist PASOK party announced it was expelling her from its ranks.

“This is an unbelievable incident which has to be cleared up completely with the full force of law,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said as she arrived for a regular meeting with her EU counterparts in Brussels.

“This is about the credibility of Europe.”

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney echoed her concern. “It is damaging. We need to get to the bottom of it.”

Belgian prosecutors said they had suspected for months that a Gulf state was trying to buy influence in Brussels.

A source with knowledge of the case said the state was Qatar. A Qatari official denied at the weekend accusations of possible misconduct.

“Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed,” the official said.

 

BACKING QATAR

The investigation comes as World Cup host Qatar is in the global spotlight, amid criticism of its human rights record, including its treatment of migrant workers.

In a speech in the European Parliament on Nov. 21, as the month-long soccer tournament was starting, Kaili lashed out at Qatar’s detractors and hailed the energy-rich Gulf State a“a frontrunner in labour rights”.

They committed to a vision by choice and they opened to the world. Still some here are calling to discriminate them. They bully them and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages (with them) of corruption,” Kaili said.

As they arrived at Monday’s EU meeting, ministers were quick to condemn the alleged corruption.

“It is absolutely unacceptable, any kind of corruption,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky.

“Qatar is an important partner for the energy of the EU,” he noted, while adding: “Of course the relation between the EU and Qatar needs to be built on a set of policies including human rights and labor rights.”

Some European diplomats told Reuters last month that pressure to maintain good ties with Qatar was increasing as the continent headed towards a winter of energy shortages because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The European Parliament was due to vote this week on a proposal to extend visa-free travel to the EU for Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Ecuador.

Some lawmakers have suggested the vote should be postponed. Others have called for a debate on the corruption raids. The European Parliament is set to look at both requests in a session that starts at 1600 GMT.

By Philip Blenkinsop and Lefteris Papadimas

(Reporting by Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels and Lefteris Papadimas in Athens, Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Bart Meijer, Charlotte Van Campenhout and Angeliki Koutantou. Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Crispian Balmer)

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