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Qatar corruption scandal rocks European Parliament

The European Parliament quickly moved into damage control after a top Greek politician and others were accused of taking bribes from Qatar in exchange for pushing the Gulf kingdom's agenda in EU institutions.

(CN) — Rocked by an alleged Qatari bribery campaign, the European Parliament on Tuesday voted to oust a Greek Social Democratic politician at the center of the corruption scandal from her role as a vice president in the European Union's elected chamber.

Eva Kaili, 44, already had been booted from the Socialists and Democrats group in parliament after she and at least three others were arrested on Friday by Belgian authorities. She remained in custody on Tuesday and was scheduled to appear at a pretrial hearing in Brussels on Wednesday.

Kaili and her alleged associates are accused of taking large bribes and lavish gifts from Qatar in exchange for championing the Gulf kingdom's agenda in EU affairs. Since imposing a blockade on Russian oil and natural gas, the EU has begun to turn to the oil-rich kingdom of Qatar for its energy needs. In turn, Qatar was seeking an easing of visa requirements for its citizens, among other favors.

The Greek politician denied any wrongdoing. Qatari officials said they had no reason to bribe EU officials and rejected the allegations.

On Tuesday, Belgian media, citing unnamed official sources, said 1.5 million euros in cash (about $1.6 million) had been seized during raids on homes and offices between Friday and Monday.

“My group and myself are shocked by this corruption case,” Iratxe Garcia Perez, the president of the Socialists and Democrats group in parliament, told reporters on Tuesday morning. “I want to make it clear that our commitment to transparency is, has been and will always be absolute.”

Garcia Perez said her main concern is to protect the parliament's credibility. EU lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to remove Kaili as one of 14 vice presidents in the chamber. One parliamentarian voted against the measure and two abstained.

For Qatar, the fresh corruption allegations cast another long shadow over the world soccer federation's controversial decision to allow the autocratic Gulf kingdom to host this year's men's World Cup soccer tournament.

Qatar has sought to use the World Cup to burnish its global image and highlight the Middle East's progress, but the kingdom is facing strong outcry over its dismal track record on human and labor rights.

The Guardian newspaper and other media outlets have found that more than 6,500 low-paid migrant workers allegedly died while building more than $200 billion in infrastructure for the games in the past decade. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have repeatedly called attention to the horrific conditions workers endured while building the World Cup stadiums in Qatar's extreme heat.

Additionally, Qatar was accused of using bribes to win its bid to host the World Cup, with U.S. federal prosecutors arresting FIFA officials in 2015 for receiving millions in bribes. Qatar is also facing scrutiny for its criminalization of homosexuality.

The new allegations of Qatari bribes inside the European Parliament are rocking EU politics and casting a harsh light on the parliament, which was already seen by many Europeans as a bloated and ineffective political chamber.

The European Parliament is the only EU institution composed of members directly elected by EU citizens. The chamber's 705 parliamentarians are elected in their home districts to five-year terms and sent to Brussels to represent their constituents on EU matters.

But the parliament's powers are weak compared to those of the European Commission, the executive branch, and the European Council, a body made up of the EU's 27 national leaders. The parliament does not have the power to initiate legislation, though its approval is typically needed for laws to be passed. Nonetheless, the parliament plays a central role in crafting EU policies.

The alleged Qatari bribes – dubbed “Qatargate” by European journalists – threaten to become the largest corruption scandal in the parliament's history and its members were quickly trying to salvage the institution's reputation.

As the only EU institution directly elected by European citizens, the parliament is seen as critical in building trust in the EU project and making the transnational bloc more democratic and responsive to citizens.

“The Qatargate scandal cannot be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the European Parliament,” said Terry Reintke, the head of the Green and European Free Alliance, a parliamentary group.

Reintke said the parliament must “put in place the strongest possible measures to ensure that such corruption can never happen again.”

Parliamentarians called for an independent investigation into the allegations and new tools to bolster efforts to fight corruption and the influence of lobbyists and non-EU countries.

Besides Kaili, a former EU parliamentarian from Italy, Pier Antonio Panzeri, was accused of taking bribes from Qatar. Panzeri heads a nonprofit called Fight Impunity. Kaili's partner, Francesco Giorgi, an aide to another parliamentarian, also faces corruption charges.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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