Stories of alleged political corruption can often feel a little dry in the details — all shell companies, wire transfers and offshore accounts.
This is not one of those stories.
This is a set of allegations — denied by those involved — that concern one of Europe’s most senior politicians, the Qatar World Cup and fat bundles of cash lined up on a table and tweeted out by the Belgian police.
Eva Kaili, one of the European Parliament’s 14 vice-presidents, has been detained and charged with corruption in one of the most explosive scandals in the history of the European Parliament.
More than €1.5million (£1.3m, $1.6m) in cash was found by Belgian police, including a substantial amount at the house of Kaili, according to Belgian media reports. Her lawyer says he has no idea if any money was found or where.
Dans le cadre d’un dossier du Parquet Fédéral de suspicions de corruption, visant des personnes actives au sein du Parlement européen, la Police Judiciaire Fédérale a saisi près d’1,5 millions d’euros lors de perquisitions menées en région bruxelloise. pic.twitter.com/2UfK2zNtnm
— Police Fédérale (@policefederale) December 14, 2022
The fact the controversy is raging the same week as the World Cup final deepens the very deep controversies this tournament is associated with and further alleged evidence of so-called “sportswashing”.
“Sport has this pernicious ability to undermine normal standards,” says Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, a think tank. “You can visit Qatar and claim it’s a site visit, rather than just tacky PR.
“Sport still carries that cache, so lots of dignitaries are going to visit a country where a sporting event is held… people won’t care about the other stuff.”
How big a deal is this?
The scandal dubbed ‘Qatargate’ accuses the tiny Gulf state of bribing Kaili and other European lawmakers, and other influential figures, in return for lobbying for the country’s interests.
It suggests a direct link between paying politicians — in bundles full of cash — and them lobbying for and even voting in favour of Qatari interests in the European Union.
Read more: Why has World Cup final pitch been relaid?
“It’s extremely important,” says Luis Poiares Maduro, a Portuguese academic and politician, chair of the FIFA Governance Committee and an expert in EU law.
“It’s the first time you have a vice-president of the European Parliament charged with having been corrupted by a foreign power in order to interfere, not just in the politics of the EU, but also possibly impacting legislation.”
Anti-corruption group Transparency International is calling it a “bribery and corruption scandal of epic proportions”, and the president of the European Parliament says “European democracy is under attack” in a series of events that go right to the heart of global football.
Who is Eva Kaili?
Kaili is one of the EU’s most senior politicians.
Originally a TV news presenter, she became a member of parliament for PASOK, traditionally Greece’s largest centre-left party, in 2007. Seven years later, she was elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), making the jump from national to continental politics.
She was a part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament. In January of this year, she was elected as one of the parliament’s 14 vice-presidents, shared between the parliament’s various blocs, who are some of the body’s most influential members, deputising for the president.
She has long been a glamorous figure in her homeland, rubbing shoulders with British billionaire Richard Branson and Greek-Russian billionaire Ivan Savvidis.
She is a key figure in the European Parliament on tech policy and just one week ago, posted on Instagram about the “overwhelming” attendance at the European Tech Futures Summit she had helped organise, with parliament president Roberta Metsola in attendance.
After that — Kaili’s final moments as a regular politician — things went a bit crazy.
How did it all start?
Last Friday, Belgian police made a series of arrests. Two days later, four people were charged with “participation in a criminal organisation, money laundering and corruption”, said Belgium’s federal prosecutor in a statement shared with The Athletic.
“It is suspected that third parties in political and/or strategic positions within the European Parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence parliament’s decisions”.
Although Kaili was not named by police, she was quickly named in the media and suspended by the S&D group in the parliament, as well as her Greek party PASOK.
In a series of raids, police seized more than €1.5m in cash, allegedly bribes to influence the EU on issues relating to Qatar.
As well as Kaili, police arrested Francesco Giorgi, Kaili’s partner and father of their child, who is an assistant to another MEP.
Court documents seen by The New York Times identified the other suspects as Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former member of parliament, and Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, secretary general of a Brussels-based charity.
Her father, Alexandros Kaili, was arrested as part of the same operation but subsequently released.
All deny wrongdoing and Qatar denies any involvement.
What has Eva Kaili said about Qatar?
Eva Kaili has repeatedly spoken positively about Qatar in the European Parliament, very explicitly praising the country and rebutting the Gulf state’s critics.
Just last week she spoke out from her position as vice-president to praise Qatar as a “front-runner in labour rights”.
She also spoke of the “hypocrisy” of the West, which she said did not have the “moral authority” to criticise the Gulf state, a key talking point from Qatar and its backers.
Kaili’s lawyer said there is uncontested evidence that “every move, contact and statement made by Eva Kaili regarding Qatar was made in execution and application of the official policy of the European Union”.
Several bags full of cash allegedly linked to World Cup host Qatar have been found following the arrest of European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili in a corruption probe. pic.twitter.com/3LsQoJtOqA
— DW News (@dwnews) December 10, 2022
Though the arguments made by Kaili are not unreasonable or illegitimate, the context of them just days before her arrest is extremely troublesome.
The parliament has key votes coming up on visa liberalisation with Qatar, as well as an aviation deal with a country that serves as a key global hub between Europe and the rest of the world.
How did the European Parliament react to the arrests?
Maduro says the events of the past week have been truly shocking for an institution unused to such serious allegations of corruption that damage the parliament’s credibility. He did, though, note the parliament’s swift and firm response in comparison to how some national parliaments have dealt with similar issues.
Although she has only been charged and not convicted, Kaili has been kicked out of her party and stripped of her vice-president role.
The group chairs in the European Parliament unanimously voted for the removal of vice-president Kaili just now.
The vote of this will be taken in the plenary today.
We also agreed to a full inquiry into the matter and taking further preventive measures.
— Terry Reintke (@TerryReintke) December 13, 2022
There has been no sugar-coating the scale of this scandal from senior European politicians, with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, calling it of “utmost concern”.
Furthermore, Kaili’s assets in Greece have been frozen by the country’s anti-money laundering authority.
Professor Menon notes that although this is undoubtedly a huge scandal, the EU has experienced major corruption scandals before, noting Jacques Chirac’s suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds and abusing public trust in his time as mayor of Paris.
What does all this have to do with football?
As you may have noticed, there is a World Cup going on in Qatar right now, a tournament mired in accusations of human rights abuses and corruption.
No “smoking gun” was ever found by American officials investigating whether Qatar bribed its way to hosting the tournament when the decision was made in 2010 and Qatar has always denied any wrongdoing.
However, of those who voted on FIFA’s executive committee in December 2010, most have been suspended, fined or banned by FIFA.
Although the bare fact of the World Cup taking place in Qatar has long been settled, the state has undergone a PR blitz in an attempt to cement its legacy and reject the criticisms levelled at it during the tournament.
Part of this involves downplaying and dismissing the serious and credible allegations of human rights abuses made about Qatar.
There are legitimate arguments to be made pushing back at some of Qatar’s critics. Progress has been made on labour reforms and, in some cases, reports on worker deaths have been exaggerated.
“We know that Qatar, as one pillar of external policies, has been using sport,” says Maduro. “This underscores the importance to act to free politics from the capture by sport.
“I hope this will be an additional wake-up call for the need for politics to take seriously the need to regulate sports.”
What about the ITUC?
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the global body representing trade unions around the world, was also briefly entangled in the scandal.
The organisation, after being fiercely critical of Qatar on workers’ rights in the aftermath of the 2010 announcement, has changed its tune in a big way, praising the country’s reforms.
In a video released by a Qatari government ministry, recently departed general secretary Sharan Burrow said, “The people who attack Qatar for its labour laws from outside the country — we say, ‘Go and have a look’. Workers can achieve justice in Qatar.”
One of those arrested on Friday was Luca Visentini, who recently replaced Burrow as secretary general of the ITUC.
However, he was quickly released by Belgian police and cleared of any wrongdoing.
“I am pleased that the questioning has concluded and I was able to fully answer all the questions,” he said in a statement. “Should any further allegations be made, I look forward to the opportunity to refute them, as I am innocent of any wrongdoing.”
His organisation directly addressed accusations that there was anything untoward going on with its switch in position on Qatar’s reforms.
“The ITUC’s work on Qatar has, since the beginning, been entirely based on objective analysis and assessment of the facts,” it said. “Any suggestion that any other entity, from Qatar or anywhere else, has influenced the ITUC’s position is entirely false.”
What do the accused say?
All accusations are vehemently denied by the Qatari government, which “categorically rejects” any misconduct as “baseless and gravely misinformed”.
— Qatar Mission to the European Union (@QatarMissionEU) December 11, 2022
As for Eva Kaili, media outlets have published statements from her lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos on Greek TV.
“She declares her innocence and that she has nothing to do with bribery from Qatar,” he is reported on saying. “I have no insight into whether money was found or how much was found”.
In correspondence with The Athletic, Dimitrakopoulos shared a press release noting that a court hearing determining whether or not Kaili will be released from custody has been adjourned until December 22.
“Ms Kaili and her attorneys were informed that today (Wednesday) there was an employee strike and therefore there would not be available personnel to transfer her to the court,” the statement says. “Due to the above false information, there was no proper legal preparation. Today, when they were informed that, finally, the transfer was possible, her authorised lawyers mutually decided to submit a petition for adjournment, which was approved by the court.”
(Top photo: Vladimir Rys/Getty Images)