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14 June, 2024
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The week that shook Brussels saw a police stakeout, piles of cash, and reform promises

The detention of a Greek MEP and her boyfriend is at the heart of a top-secret investigation into a criminal conspiracy

Source: The Guardian

The police had been waiting since dawn. Officers from the special unit of Belgium’s federal police gathered on Rue Wiertz, close to the European Parliament in Brussels. The parliament, which likes to style itself the house of European democracy, had been at the centre of a months-long, top-secret investigation. Investigators believed a Gulf country – unofficially confirmed as Qatar – was trying to sway decisions at the assembly, using vast sums of cash and lavish gifts. Now they were about to arrest the man they thought was at the centre of the criminal conspiracy.

He was Francesco Giorgi, an assistant at the 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 parliament’s 14 vice presidents since her election in 2014. As soon as Giorgi left the building, police surrounded him. His interrogation – and seizure of his phone – was deemed crucial to the investigation, according to Le Soir, which recounted the details of his morning arrest. By lunchtime last Friday, police had searched 16 properties in Brussels, arrested five others including Kaili, and seized laptops, phones and hundreds of thousands of euros in cash. Two people were later released without charge.

The revelations, broken first by Belgian media, followed by a terse official statement, exploded like a thunderclap over the European parliament, which likes to boast of its role as the EU’s only directly-elected institution. It was like a crime novel or a bad Netflix series, insiders said. MEPs and staff were stunned, angry, and incredulous.

As the police raids were unfolding, the parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, was informed. She was in her home country, Malta, preparing to give a speech to a school, when she was asked to waive the inviolability of European parliament premises – a step that would allow police to seal offices belonging to Kaili and other suspects.

Within 36 hours Metsola was back in Brussels and announced she was stripping Kaili of her responsibilities. The following day, Sunday, police charged Kaili, Giorgi and two others with money laundering, corruption and participation in a criminal organisation. The suspects appeared before the investigative judge Michel Claise, renowned for cracking complex fraud cases and writing detective novels, such as Crime d’initiés (Crime of the Insiders).

The European Parliament “is under attack”, Metsola said. Transparency activists countered that the institution had weakened its defences with lax internal rules, such as allowing MEPs to have second jobs, secret expense accounts and permitting foreign governments to sponsor so-called “friendship groups” and fund all-expenses-paid trips.

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

A former TV news anchor from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, Kaili was a glamorous figure inside the European parliament, who drew attention for her elegant dresses and smart handbags, as well as her interest in tech regulation and cryptocurrencies.

She and Giorgi were a golden couple. He was an amateur sailor, who filled his Instagram feed with images of him cruising through crystalline waters, beach sunsets and selfies on the ski slopes. Kaili’s feed showed her speaking at a blockchain conference in the parliament, or looking soulful on a recent official visit to Oman, where she posed by a patterned wall wearing a headscarf loosely covering her long blonde hair. “Building bridges with our most friendly neighbours,” the caption read.

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

Kaili meets Qatar’s labour minister, Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, in Doha on 31 October. Photograph: Qatar’s Ministery of Labour/AFP/Getty Images
In the debate on the resolution, she stunned colleagues when she declared Qatar “a frontrunner in labour rights”, ignoring countless reports about the deaths of migrant workers. Hannah Neumann, a German Green MEP, who chairs the parliament’s delegation for relations with the Arabian peninsula, recalls Kaili had “a strong position that was often the same one that the ambassador of Qatar would have”.

Speaking to the Guardian, Neumann recalled a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2020 when Kaili raised an issue concerning a Qatari princess at every single meeting – including when MEPs talked to an organisation delivering humanitarian aid to hungry people in Yemen. “When given the floor, [she would] not ask questions about Yemen, but again raise the issue of the Qatari princess. And I just thought she was a bit naive, or just didn’t get 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), told NPR that “it was very obvious that [Kaili] was very much in favour of giving a visa waiver to Qatar very fast with not so many conditions” but was “not so interested in the other countries”.

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

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

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

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