Tags : Morocco, Qatar, European Parliament, corruption, Antonio Panzeri, Eva Kaili, Francesco Giorgi,
Suspicions of corruption in the European Parliament: By Benoît Collombat, Investigation Unit of Radio France, Pauline Hofmann
Have Qatar and Morocco managed to buy the benevolence of several European parliamentarians? The investigation unit of Radio France and the Belgian newspaper Le Soir reveal behind the scenes of this scandal which is shaking European democracy.
“Everything went well. We were passed off as VIPs!”
“Have you seen the boxes?”
“Yes, we have seen them. He added/put some products in the bags before leaving.”
On June 4, 2022, Belgian intelligence agents did not lose a crumb of the very coded conversation they intercepted between the former Italian socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and his wife then traveling to Morocco. She has just met Abderrahim Atmoun there, now Morocco’s ambassador to Poland. And for the investigators, the “products” mentioned by the Panzeri wife would be money given by the Moroccan diplomat. Later, they will find 600,000 euros in cash at the Brussels home of Pier Antonio Panzeri and 17,000 euros at his home in Italy. “The money earned on behalf of Morocco is almost certainly transferred by cash envelopes transmitted by [Abderrahim, ndlr] Atmoun” , write in a note the Belgian secret services.
“Mr. Atmoun brought back money from time to time, but not on a regular basis ,” explained a former collaborator of Pier Antonio Panzeri, Francesco Giorgi, in December 2022. “Mr. Atmoun came to Brussels or we went to his house, to his apartment, in Paris. When we went to look for money, we said that we were going to look for ties or suits” , specifies Francesco Giorgi.
Moroccan counterintelligence suspected
The Belgian security services were alerted in 2021 by five European intelligence services. Since then, they suspect the former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri of being the kingpin of a vast network of interference and corruption operating within the European institutions. In July 2022, they transmit the result of their investigations to the Belgian federal prosecutor. The latter opens an investigation for corruption and money laundering in an organized gang which he entrusts to judge Michel Claise.
For the Belgian intelligence services, “there exists within the European institutions, a network involving a lobbyist, several European parliamentarians and parliamentary assistants [who] work clandestinely in order to influence the decisions of the institutions of the European Union in favor of Morocco on the one hand and Qatar on the other.” This is what they write in a declassified note. They specify: “Considerable sums (several million euros) are paid clandestinely, in cash, by Morocco and Qatar.”
At the heart of this network, “a team of three Italians” would have been particularly active. It consists first of Pier Antonio Panzeri. This key figure in the European Parliament chaired the delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries as well as the sub-committee on human rights. He also co-chaired the joint Morocco-European Union parliamentary committee. In this small group, we also find the Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino, and the parliamentary attaché Francesco Giorgi (companion of the Greek vice-president of parliament Eva Kaili), who worked successively for one and for the other.
“This team is led by an officer of the DGED [Moroccan counterintelligence] based in Rabat, Mohammed B., estimates Belgian intelligence. Known (…) since 2008 for interference activities in Belgium, he was also active in France, where he is being prosecuted for corruption of public officials because of the recruitment of a border police official. As revealed by the newspaper Liberation in 2017 , Mohammed B. had indeed been suspected of having bribed a French policeman (with money and trips) in order to obtain the identity of people “on file S” for the account of Morocco.
An infiltration of parliamentary proceedings?
But he wouldn’t have stopped there. “Mohammed B also obtained information on the trips to France by Algerian ministers, Algeria being the neighboring power and rival of Rabat, explains journalist Pierre Alonso, co-author of the investigation for Liberation. He was also able to discover thanks to his mole within the police what the French services knew about him. We are closer to a spy operation targeting France than to an action against terrorism.”
Five years later, the same Moroccan agent would therefore find himself at the heart of the suspicions of interference aimed at the European institutions. For the Belgian investigators, “the cooperation between Cozzolino, Panzeri and Giorgi with the Moroccan intelligence services is beyond doubt. All take their orders mostly from Atmoun. They are also in direct contact with (…) the director general of the DGED [Moroccan intelligence, editor’s note]. (…) The team (…) operates with a discretion that goes beyond mere caution, avoiding appearing too openly pro-Moroccan in the European Parliament, using coded language and hiding cash in their apartment.” Still according to Belgian intelligence, the agreement with the DGED was formally concluded in 2019.
The investigators are also wondering about a possible infiltration of parliamentary works likely to interest Morocco, in particular those concerning the use of the Pegasus software. “We have noted that [Andrea] Cozzolino would have been appointed to the Special Parliamentary Commission on the Pegasus program in January 2022 and [Eva] Kaili to the vice-presidency following the support of Pier Antonio Panzeri, Belgian police note on July 20, 2022 (…) Mr. Panzeri being suspected of working on behalf of Morocco, these appointments seem suspicious.”
Morocco has always firmly denied having the slightest link with this corruption scandal around the European Parliament. Contacted, the French lawyer in Morocco and the Moroccan ambassador in Brussels did not respond to our requests.
Western Sahara, a crucial issue
Why would such a network have been set up with the European institutions by the Moroccan services?
“The European Union is an entity of vital interest to Morocco, analyzes Belgian intelligence. She is his first business partner. The origin of the vast majority of its foreign investments and it hosts most of the Moroccan diaspora. The development of the kingdom, its energy security and its geopolitical ambitions (mainly the recognition of the ‘Moroccanness’ of Western Sahara annexed in 1975) depend, at least in part, on the goodwill of the European Union.
Since 2008, Morocco has had a special status within the European institutions which allows it to benefit from a whole series of advantages without necessarily adhering to its institutions. In this context, the issue of Western Sahara, rich in phosphate and fish-rich waters, is an essential concern. This former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco, considered “non-autonomous” by the United Nations , is claimed by the Polisario Front supported by Algeria.
“The objective of Moroccans is to ensure that we never talk about Western Sahara, believes the former secretary general of the NGO OXFAM-Belgium and former Belgian socialist senator, Pierre Galand, supporter of the independence of the Western Sahara. They want to impose the idea that Western Sahara is Moroccan, period. He says that during a lunch in the 1990s, a Moroccan journalist with whom he had sympathized would have tried to buy his silence. “He said to me: ‘You keep your convictions. But if you agree to stop talking about the Sahara, tell us how much the Algerians give you and we’ll pay you double.’ I told him to get the hell out of here immediately! And since then, I have never seen him again in Brussels” , says the ex-senator.
More recently, the former French ecologist MEP José Bové had also accused the Moroccan Minister of Agriculture , now Prime Minister, of having tried to corrupt him in the 2000s, about a free trade agreement. -agricultural exchange. An accusation which earned him a defamation complaint filed in December 2022.
For the Belgian intelligence services, the agreements relating to fishing and agriculture are crucial for Rabat. “As economic interests mix with political interests, Morocco systematically seeks to include Western Sahara in these agreements in order to be able to demonstrate a de facto recognition of its occupation, note the Belgian services. Obtaining support within the European apparatus is therefore of vital importance for Morocco, which does so through open (public diplomacy) and clandestine means. Antonio Panzeri, who is believed to have been active for Morocco ‘since at least 2014’according to the Belgian investigators, would therefore have understood it well. A French member of the Association of Friends of the People of Western Sahara who wishes to remain discreet, remembers the remarks made by Antonio Panzeri at the time. During a meeting in 2015 with an Italian activist from the association, then accompanied by a young Sahrawi, “he explained to her that trade with Morocco was something important, and that Sahrawis benefited from Moroccan actions . He congratulated the young Sahrawi for her struggle [for independence], while advising her to abandon it”.
According to a leak of official Moroccan documents, as early as 2011 Antonio Panzeri seems to have been spotted by the Moroccan ambassador to the European Union in Brussels. He then considers him as “a credible interlocutor” showing “constructive ambiguity”. For the former Portuguese Socialist MP Ana Gomes, who worked alongside him for a long time in the European Parliament, “Antonio Panzeri was clever and intelligent. He hid his game. I saw him torpedo many initiatives and resolutions on human rights in Morocco using all sorts of arguments, opportunity and efficiency”.
A letter from Morocco’s ambassador to the European Union dated 2013 indicates that Antonio Panzeri would also have been invited to “raise awareness among Italian deputies for a positive vote on the fishing agreements” . But these trade agreements concluded between the European Union and Morocco, including Western Sahara, will come up against the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union. She considers them illegal because they do not take into account the will of the Saharawi people. “Morocco then realized that traditional, official lobbying through consultants was no longer enough ,” said Mahjoub Mleiha, head of international relations at the Brussels-based Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (Codesa).
In January 2019, despite the position of the Court of Justice of the EU, the Parliament and the European Commission still decide to include Western Sahara in their trade agreement . The head of European diplomacy Federica Mogherini then welcomed a “ new stage in the strategic partnership ” between the European Union and Morocco, while the French Commissioner for European Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, welcomed in a tweet an agreement which puts “ an end to a legal uncertainty harmful to all, in particular to the companies and inhabitants of Western Sahara ”.
“The European Commission and the Member States have, in a way, worked against the judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union, fulminates the Finnish Green MEP, Heidi Hautala, Vice-President of the European Parliament. The way this deal was crafted was completely biased and misleading.”
For Pierre Moscovici, now President of the Court of Auditors: “There was no Moroccan interference, even if Moroccans obviously defended their interests… This solution was the right one since it made it possible to create jobs in an area that was singularly devoid of them.” And yet, in September 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union will once again invalidate these agreements . The Council of the EU and the European Commission have appealed .
When socialists support the far right
Beyond the trade agreements concluded with Morocco, Belgian investigators are also wondering about the nomination of certain candidates for the 2021 Sakharov Prize , the European equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded that year to the opponent Russian Alexei Navalny. Surprisingly, the European Socialists preferred to support in the final selection of the Sakharov Prize the candidacy proposed by the far right (ex-Bolivian President Jeanine Añez, imprisoned for her involvement in the coup that overthrew her predecessor Evo Morales). Faced with this candidacy, the one sponsored by the group of the Greens and the Left: Sultana Khaya, a Sahrawi activist under house arrest for 18 months, and who accuses the Moroccan police of having raped her.
“Former Croatian Socialist Minister, MEP Tonino Picula, sent an ‘urgent’ email to all Socialist MEPs asking them to support the far-right candidate”, says Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero specialist from Morocco who revealed the episode. “He explains that it is not a personal initiative and that he speaks on behalf of the Portuguese vice-president of the socialist group in the European Parliament, continues the journalist. This episode illustrates to what extent Morocco has always been the spoiled child of the European Parliament.”
“We do not touch Qatar!”
In addition to Antonio Panzeri’s alleged action in favor of Morocco, the Belgian investigators meticulously documented some of his interventions in favor of Qatar. “Qatar’s objectives are different from those of Morocco, analyzes Belgian intelligence. Where the latter tries to obtain influence within the European apparatus to sway decisions in his favour, the Qatari sponsor seeks to improve the image of Qatar in terms of workers’ rights, nothing more. This image was particularly tarnished by reports denouncing the abuses on the construction sites of the stadiums of the 2022 football world cup.
To do this, Antonio Panzeri does not skimp on the means. In particular, he will become the real conductor of the intervention of the Qatari Minister of Labor, Ali Bin Samikh Al Marri , on November 14, 2022, before the Parliament’s human rights sub-committee , chaired by one of his relatives. Mary Arena .
“We had prepared the hearing of the minister , recognizes Francesco Giorgi on the minutes. Mister Panzeri wrote it. He highlighted the reforms undertaken by Qatar and questioned the fact of attacking him when it was the only Gulf country to show some openness. But it does not stop there. “Mr. Panzeri thought that it could be useful if questions could be prepared in advance, adds Francesco Giorgi. Because the part devoted to questions and answers in the debate is the most difficult.” In other words: certain questions publicly posed to the minister seem to have been guided by Antonio Panzeri.
The investigators are also interested in the Belgian deputy, Marc Tarabella. When he spoke that day in front of his colleagues, facing the Qatari minister, he said: “I did not hear [many colleagues] when [the World Cup] was awarded to Russia, which had already invaded the Donbass in 2014 and 2018. There were not all these debates when we attributed the Winter Olympics to Sochi or Beijing [Beijing]. I have the impression that many are focusing on an image from 10 years ago, as if there had been no evolution in Qatar. Telephone tapping will show later that it was Antonio Panzeri who asked that Marc Tarabella be suggested to make this intervention.
Once arrested, Antonio Panzeri will accuse Marc Tarabella of having received between 120,000 and 140,000 euros between 2019 and 2022, which the latter firmly denies. According to France Insoumise MEP Manon Aubry, who denounced Qatar’s lobbying in Parliament before the scandal broke , Marc Tarabella was among the MPs who told her: “‘Why are you obsessing over this question ? Qatar has made tremendous progress in human rights.’ There was a clear resistance that was almost epidermal. We are not touching Qatar!” , assures the MEP.
To understand how we got there, we have to go back to October 2022, in a suite at the Steigenberger Wiltcher’s, a Brussels palace. The Minister of Labor enters there with a Qatari delegation before being joined by Antonio Panzeri and Francesco Giorgi. By analyzing the video surveillance images of the hotel, a detail attracts the attention of the investigators. As they leave the suite, “the bag Antonio Panzeri is carrying seems thicker than when he arrived. “The Belgian police have little doubt about its contents: cash. “As for Morocco, Panzeri and Giorgi share the work and the remuneration 50-50” , notes the Belgian intelligence.
Asked about the minutes in December 2022, Francesco Giorgi explains how he received the money. “I was put in contact with a person in Turkey. She gave me a phone number that I had to contact in Belgium to receive the funds. It was a different person each time. I always erased the number so as not to keep any traces. This happened two or three times a year, maximum.”
“Panzeri and Giorgi have been working for Qatar since 2018, believe the investigators, on a mode of operation similar to that used for Morocco. It is a work of interference, involving legitimate lobbyists, press articles, but also the co-optation of MEPs, assistants and officials of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and within the European and global trade union confederations to get positive reports towards Qatar and to try to place knowledgeable people in the right parliamentary committees.”
In 2022, Antonio Panzeri would have given 50,000 euros to the new general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Visentini, indicted and then released under conditions . Qatar has always denied any corruption in this case.
A strange NGO
For Belgian investigators, some NGOs of convenience could have served as channels to collect cash paid by Qatar. At the end of his mandate as an MEP, in 2019, Antonio Panzeri indeed created an association for the defense of human rights called Fight Impunity . An organization not registered in the transparency register, whose activity is questionable.
She caught the attention of the President of the International Federation of Journalists, Dominique Pradalié, during a symposium devoted to media freedom and the protection of journalists in December 2022, in partnership with UNESCO, the research service of the European Parliament and the Jean Monnet House. “Panzeri and the other speakers knew absolutely nothing about the subject, remembers Dominique Pradalié.I found it more and more strange. In the evening, an official dinner was planned in a Parisian restaurant. I had been sent the menu: gravlax salmon, crunchy vegetables, pearl veal jus, lemon cream, crispy chocolate… I declined. We really didn’t understand what we were doing there. On the other hand, I received three reimbursement sheets: that worked!”
Based on his contacts within the European institutions, Antonio Panzeri had succeeded in convincing several personalities to appear on the honorary committee of his NGO . Among them: the former Italian European Commissioner, Emma Bonino, the Congolese Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, the former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, but also the former French Prime Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve.
Contacted, the latter explains that he was approached three years ago by the entourage of Antonio Panzeri. “I have never met them and have not taken part in any colloquium. They used my name and that of committed and completely honorable people to carry out an unacceptable business: this is called breach of trust” , denounces today Bernard Cazeneuve who says he wants to file a complaint. For his part, the former Greek European commissioner Dimítris Avramópoulos admits having received money (60,000 euros for one year) to promote Fight Impunity. After obtaining a repentant status with the Belgian justice in exchange for a more lenient sentence, Antonio Panzeri began to confide in the investigators.
He claims to have received a total of at least 2.6 million euros in cash, mainly from Qatar. In addition to gifts and trips, Morocco would have paid him (and Francesco Giorgi) at least 180,000 euros while a third country, Mauritania, would have given them at least 200,000 euros in cash. Under house arrest in Italy pending extradition to Belgium, Italian MP Andrea Cozzolino denies any corruption. The lawyer of the Belgian deputy Marc Tarabella affirms that the latter has never received money or gifts to monetize his opinions.
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