2 Lawmakers Stripped of Immunity in Brussels Graft Inquiry
European Union lawmakers revoked the immunity of two of their peers on Thursday, opening the door to more arrests by the Belgian authorities in the latest twist of a sweeping investigation into allegations of corruption of the bloc’s Parliament by Qatar and Morocco.
The two lawmakers, Marc Tarabella of Belgium and Andrea Cozzolino of Italy, are members of the center-left Socialists and Democrats group, which is at the heart of the scandal ripping through the European Parliament.
They are expected to be swiftly arrested by the Belgian authorities, which called last month for their immunity to be lifted in a case that bears more resemblance to a crime novel than to the staid, bureaucratic reality of the European Union.
Mr. Cozzolino, 60, is suspected of accepting money in exchange for protecting the interests of foreign powers, in particular by “preventing the adoption of parliamentary resolutions which could harm” their interests, according to a report drafted by lawmakers who had access to confidential documents from the Belgian judiciary.
Mr. Tarabella is accused of similar wrongdoing, with the Belgian authorities saying that he “supported certain positions within the European Parliament in favor of a third state” for the past two years, in exchange for up to 140,000 euros, about $153,000.
After the vote on Thursday, which he attended, Mr. Tarabella, 59, said that he was innocent and promised to cooperate with the authorities. He said that he had voted to lift his own immunity.
“I have been asking for the lifting of this immunity since the very first days of this case, in order to be able to answer the questions of the investigators and help the justice to shed light on this file,” he told The Times.
Mr. Cozzolino’s office did not reply to a request for comment.
The scandal erupted late last year, after a yearlong investigation by the Belgian authorities, who were aided by intelligence services from other European countries.
The inquiry centers on a group of current and former center-left lawmakers who are accused of accepting cash and favors from Qatar and Morocco in exchange for pushing for decisions by the European Parliament that would benefit those countries economically and politically.
Both Qatar and Morocco have denied any wrongdoing.
The Belgian police have recovered over €1.5 million in cash hidden in suitcases and jewelry boxes, and raided over 20 private residences and offices as part of the investigation.
Four people linked to the Parliament have been arrested and charged with forming a criminal organization, corruption and money laundering. Mr. Cozzolino and Mr. Tarabella could face the same charges, which carry sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
The investigation has led to the arrest of Eva Kaili, a former vice president of the assembly, who is from Greece; Francesco Giorgi, her partner and an aide to Mr. Cozzolino; Pier Antonio Panzeri, an Italian former lawmaker and Mr. Giorgi’s former employer; and Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, the head of a Brussels-based human rights charity.
Mr. Panzeri’s wife and daughter have also been arrested, in Italy, and are awaiting extradition.
Prosecutors took a big step in strengthening their case last month, when Mr. Panzeri, who is described by the Belgian authorities as the central figure in the case, struck a deal to trade information in exchange for a lighter sentence. As part of that agreement, Mr. Panzeri pledged to reveal the identity of the others who were involved.
Ms. Kaili has denied any wrongdoing through her lawyer, as has Mr. Panzeri’s wife and daughter. Mr. Giorgi has not commented.
It remains unclear what Qatar and Morocco might have been trying to accomplish. The European Parliament has the least power of the E.U. institutions when it comes to foreign policy, but its resolutions on human rights carry weight and can influence countries’ reputations. New legislation, such as visa waivers or trade agreements, requires the approval of lawmakers.
When the scandal exploded in December, Qatar was hosting the men’s soccer World Cup. The tournament was the culmination of a yearslong program to raise the country’s international profile, but it had also been shadowed by controversy: investigators in the United States charged that Qatari interests had paid bribes to win the hosting rights.
After the arrests, the Parliament stopped all work on Qatar-related issues, including an agreement on visa-free movement, and it passed a resolution criticizing the human rights situation in Morocco for the first time in more than 25 years.