EU parliament graft arrests spark calls for tighter controls over MPs

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The arrest of a European Parliament vice-president and four others linked to a corruption probe implicating World Cup hosts Qatar sparked calls Saturday for the bloc's MPs to be held to higher standards.

"This is not an isolated incident," said anti-corruption campaigner Transparency International.

"While this may be the most egregious case of alleged corruption the European Parliament has seen in many years, it is not an isolated incident," said Transparency director Michiel van Hulten.

"Over many decades, the Parliament has allowed a culture of impunity to develop, with a combination of lax financial rules and controls and a complete lack of independent (or indeed any) ethics oversight.

"In many ways it has become a law unto itself," added van Hulten, urging "root and branch" reform.

"Every serious attempt to improve accountability is blocked by the Parliament's ruling Bureau, with the acquiescence of a majority of MEPs," he added.

Checks on the institution are "defective", tweeted Alberto Alemano of the College of Europe in Bruges.

Police arrested Greek socialist MEP Eva Kaili on Friday hours after the four others had been detained for questioning. At least three were either Italian citizens or originally came from Italy, a source close to the case told AFP.

Kaili, 44, is the partner of one of the four, Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant with the European Parliament's Socialists and Democrats group, said the source.

Former MEP Italy's Pier-Antonio Panzeri, who served as a socialist in the parliament between 2004 and 2019, was also reportedly arrested.

All five were still being questioned Saturday, said a spokesman for Belgium's federal prosecutor's office.

Corruption, money laundering

The investigation concerns "corruption" and "money laundering", the prosecutor said .

In Rome, press agencies reported Panzeri's wife and daughter had been arrested in Italy.

The arrests came after a series of raids in Brussels which Belgian prosecutors said turned up 600,000 euros ($630,000) in cash.

Computers and mobile phones were also seized in the investigation into an unnamed Gulf state suspected of influencing the decisions of the European parliament through cash payments or gifts to top figures in the EU assembly.

Belgian daily L'Echo reported Saturday that "several bags full of (money) notes" were found at Kaili's Brussels home which police decided to search after her father was caught carrying a large amount of cash in a suitcase.

A legal source close to the case confirmed to AFP Belgian press reports the country concerned was Qatar, seemingly trying to defend its tarnished reputation over human rights abuses.

In Athens, the president of the Greek socialists (PASOK) Nikos Androulakis announced on Twitter that Kaili had been expelled from the party.

"There is pressure within the party for Kaili to leave her seat at the European parliament," a member of the party told AFP.

Parliamentary immunity

"For the moment, she does not wish to give up her seat as she knows it would imply losing her parliamentary immunity," a second source said.

Kaili, a former television presenter and currently one of the European Parliament's 14 vice presidents. In November, just prior to the World Cup, she met Qatar's Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri.

In a video statement posted on Twitter by the Qatar News Agency she said: "I believe the World Cup for Arabs has been a great tool for... political transformation and reforms...".

The parliament "recognised and respected" Qatar's progress in labour reforms, she added.

She made similar comments during a speech at the assembly later in November, accusing some MEPs of "bullying" Qatar and accusing them of corruption.

Panzeri, 67, currently heads a Brussels-based human rights organisation called Fight Impunity.

The secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation, Italian Luca Visentini, was also among those reportedly arrested. The ITUC said it was "aware" of the media reports.

World Cup host Qatar has striven to improve its image in the face of criticism over its record on worker protections and human rights.

Interviewed by AFP on Monday, Visentini had welcomed progress made by Qatar on worker rights, but insisted "pressure" needed to be maintained once the football is over.

Migrant workers make up more than 2.5 million of Qatar's 2.9 million population and labour conditions have been strongly criticised -- particularly in the lead-up to the World Cup.

Doha has implemented reforms to its migrant labour system, but critics insist more work needs to be done to secure a long-term impact.