Qatar wooed EU lawmakers ahead of football World Cup

Qatar offered European lawmakers World Cup tickets, free trips to the Gulf state and other valuable hospitality as it sought to persuade them to soften their criticism of its treatment of workers ahead of the football tournament. 

The European parliament is at the centre of a spreading corruption scandal after Belgian police seized at least €1mn in cash and detained a current and a former Socialist MEP as part of an international investigation into claims that the Fifa World Cup host sought to buy influence.

Former Italian Socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri has been charged with corruption, after Belgian police seized €600,000 in cash at his home. Among the accusations is that he took his family on a €100,000 trip paid for by Qatar. One of the parliament’s vice-presidents, Greek Socialist MEP Eva Kaili and her partner Francesco Giorgi, a parliamentary assistant who formerly worked for Panzeri, have also been arrested after Belgian police seized €150,000 from their home.

Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers who built the World Cup stadiums has long attracted international criticism. Since the start of the parliamentary term in 2019 and in the run-up to the tournament, Qatari officials in Brussels sought to improve the narrative on the country’s labour and human rights record, according to five MEPs from three different political groups who spoke on condition of anonymity. The MEPs described invitations to dinner, trips and promises of World Cup tickets.

Eva Kaili, left, one of the European parliament’s vice-presidents, meets Qatar’s labour minister, Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, in October © Twitter/Ministry of Labour – State of Qatar/Reuters

“It was a systemic way of approaching Brussels lawmakers with a view to improving the country’s reputation and making sure we would not take a hard stance against the country in terms of civil and social rights,” said one of the five, a European People’s party member, who also said he never accepted any invitation.

Hannah Neumann, a Green MEP who chairs the Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula, said she was offered free trips to Qatar but always declined. “Some embassies try to influence our decisions much more aggressively than others,” she added. “It was quite obvious that a few colleagues from the S&D [Socialist] group had a strong pro-Qatari agenda.”

Neumann is one of the few EU lawmakers who declared gifts from Arab countries, including a perfume bottle from the Qataris. MEPs are not allowed to accept gifts worth more than €150 and have to declare any gifts as well as attendance at events organised by third parties. But compliance and enforcement of these rules is patchy at best. With 705 MEPs, the parliament’s gifts registry has only 39 entries from eight MEPs since 2020.

MEPs from the centre-right, liberal and centre-left groups said they were approached by Qataris through the Qatar–EU Parliamentary Friendship Group in Brussels. This group co-operates with the Qatari embassy in Brussels.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, pictured in 2019
Former Italian Socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, pictured in 2019, has been charged with corruption © European Union/AFP/Getty Images

One member still listed on the group’s webpage is Italy’s independent MEP Dino Giarrusso, who said he quit in 2019 soon after the group was established, “when I realised that the engagement was not normal”, and never participated in any of its events. “The way they engaged was off,” he added. “They wanted to convince lawmakers there was no exploitation of workers there.”

Last month, MEPs from the three biggest political groups in the European parliament agreed on a joint resolution on human rights in the context of the World Cup in Qatar. Amendments to harden language against the Gulf state were all voted down, according to official public records of the voting. Kaili was among the MEPs who voted against the harsher language.

For example, amendments that were struck down in the final text included references to Qatar’s “widespread violations of human rights and workers’ rights” and the country’s “failure to investigate the deaths of thousands of migrant workers”.

Giarrusso said: “The resolution was an extremely watered-down version of what it could have been, it was very strange.”

He added: “Out of hundreds of EU lawmakers, straight condemnations of Qatar’s management of the Fifa World Cup were very few.”

In December, members of the parliament’s home affairs committee voted in favour of Qatari nationals securing visa-free travel to Europe. Although she was not a member of that committee, Kaili voted in favour of the move and urged colleagues from other political groups to follow suit. A vote by the whole parliament on Qatar visa-free travel was scheduled for this week but has been put on hold in the wake of the arrests.

The Qatari embassy in Brussels did not respond to a request to comment.

“Like many governments, we frequently organise visits to Qatar for foreign officials and members of parliamentary groups,” a Qatari diplomat told the Financial Times. “These trips are announced publicly and provide an opportunity for visitors to discuss important topics with government officials, academics, representatives from NGOs and international organisations such as the International Labour Organization, and members of the public, so that they can form their own opinions and develop a better-informed view of Qatar.”

There was no expectation that their opinions would be positive, he added. “Our aim is only to have a constructive dialogue and show them the reality on the ground.” 

For some MEPs, the criticism of Qatar is hypocritical. “We accepted [sports] tournaments in China and Russia. We were not brave enough to criticise them and now when talking about Qatar . . . almost everybody is ready to attack Qatar . . . it’s somehow hypocritical,” said Estonia’s Andrus Ansip.

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai, Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens and Henry Foy in Brussels

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