A globetrotting Italian union boss-turned-politician has emerged as the kingpin in a sprawling international investigation into allegations that Qatar and Morocco sought to bribe EU legislators to influence policy and used a network of non-governmental organisations to hide the corrupt dealings.
Pier Antonio Panzeri, a Socialist member of the European parliament between 2004 and 2019, is one of four people charged with corruption, money laundering and being part of a criminal group after police seized €600,000 in cash at his residence in Brussels.
A separate suitcase with €600,000 in cash was found in the possession of the father of Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP also charged in the case. Kaili claims that the suitcase belonged to Panzeri, according to a person familiar with her case. Several hundred thousand more euros were found at Kaili’s home. In total, Belgian police say, almost €1.5mn in cash has been seized.
In Italy, prosecutors seized €17,000 in cash and luxury watches at Panzeri’s homes in Lombardy. An Italian judge has approved the transfer of his wife and daughter to Belgium, where they face charges of aiding and abetting corruption.
The unprecedented bribery investigation has shaken the Brussels establishment to the core as it implicates legislators, non-governmental organisations and foreign powers, prompting soul-searching in the European parliament.
After leaving parliament in 2019, Panzeri, now 67, set up a human rights group in Brussels, called Fight Impunity.
Panzeri’s contacts, which he built up during his time chairing a parliament grouping in charge of relations with Morocco and other Arab nations, meant that Fight Impunity quickly became a prominent organisation in a chamber where there are more than 13,000 registered lobbyists and many unregistered ones competing for influence.
The NGO appeared to operate as a respectable human rights group, with prominent personalities on its board, including former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, France’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve and former European commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, as well as Emma Bonino, an Italian ex-commissioner. They have now resigned from the Fight Impunity board and deny any wrongdoing. There are no allegations of wrongdoing against them and they are not under investigation.
The NGO’s interactions with the European parliament, organising events and drafting reports, were not out of the ordinary.
In December 2019, Fight Impunity held an event featuring Mogherini. In June 2022, the parliament hosted a two-day conference organised by the NGO, with speakers including David Miliband, former UK foreign minister and president of the International Rescue Committee, the US-based charity. Also at the conference was Luca Visentini, head of the International Trade Union Confederation. He has previously been criticised for his soft stance on workers’ rights in Qatar, a point he has rejected. He was detained last Friday but released “under conditions”, according to the Belgian federal prosecutor. He has denied wrongdoing. On Thursday, he temporarily stepped down from his office.
In excerpts of legal documents seen by the Financial Times, it is alleged that Fight Impunity has bank accounts in Morocco and Qatar. Panzeri’s former parliamentary aide Francesco Giorgi has made a confession, according to a person familiar with the case.
The allegations come while Qatar is at the centre of world attention as the host of the football World Cup, a tournament that has brought unprecedented scrutiny of its treatment of migrant workers, ban on homosexuality and use of its wealth to bolster its role in the world.
MEPs passed a softer-than-expected resolution on human rights in Qatar ahead of the tournament. Kaili, who is in a relationship with Giorgi, praised Qatar as a “frontrunner of labour rights” and sought to water down criticism of the Gulf state. She also voted in favour of granting Qataris visa-free travel to Europe and sought to persuade other members to follow suit. The full parliamentary vote on this has now been suspended.
According to excerpts of legal documents seen by the FT, bank accounts belonging to multiple NGOs were “used to move money around”, Giorgi said.
Fight Impunity’s Brussels address was on the prestigious Rue Ducale, near the royal palace and US embassy. Twelve NGOs are registered at that address but the landlord told the FT that they had leased the space to just one organisation, No Peace Without Justice. The secretary-general of that NGO, Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, is among the suspects charged. Figà-Talamanca is listed in the registry of Belgian NGOs as an administrator of five of the organisations. All 12 NGOs occupying the ground and first floors of the Belgian townhouse moved to that address at the same time or in the months after Figà-Talamanca registered there, according to the registry.
According to the Belgian request for the transfer of Panzeri’s wife and daughter seen by the FT, a wiretap recorded Panzeri and his wife talking about the need to open new bank accounts to hide money. Panzeri, his wife and his daughter also discussed luxury holiday plans and referred to a €100,000 vacation they had taken together, which was allegedly paid for by Qatar. They also allegedly spoke about gifts from a Moroccan ambassador. The Moroccan embassy did not respond to request for comment.
A former parliamentary assistant said that after Panzeri quit parliament, he was regularly seen inside the institution. Current rules state that former MEPs can keep their access badge for life but he did not have to sign up to its voluntary transparency register.
“Lobbyists join the register to get a grey badge to enter parliament. He had the blue badge so did not need to,” said Michiel van Hulten, a former MEP and Brussels director of Transparency International, the campaign group.
In response to the scandal, Roberta Metsola, president of the European parliament, has pledged to tighten up the institution’s rules. She wants to be able to strip former MEPs of privileges if they “use their status to lobby for anything or anyone or any country”.
It is part of a 10-point plan to revamp the parliament’s transparency requirements, ban all unofficial “friendship groups” with third countries, strengthen its whistleblower protection systems and conduct a full review of all recent legislation. Metsola said on Thursday she had blocked 11 accreditations issued for No Peace Without Justice, “which allegedly is connected to this investigation”.
Kaili’s lawyer has said she is innocent. Figà-Talamanca’s family late on Friday released a statement. “We are sure that by the end of the investigation by the Belgian judiciary, in which we have full confidence, Niccolò’s position will be clarified and that he will be cleared of any accusation.” Giorgi and Panzeri’s lawyers declined to comment. A lawyer for Panzeri’s wife and daughter said on Sunday they were innocent but did not respond to further requests for comment.
Doha earlier this week rejected any allegations of misconduct. “Any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed,” an official said.
Additional reporting from Andy Bounds in Brussels