Princes and presidents traversed the white marble floors of the ultra-selective V.V.I.P. box overlooking the field for the first game of the World Cup. But mingling among the soccer legends and Gulf royals was a figure few outside European politics would recognize: Eva Kaili.
Ms. Kaili, a Greek politician, was a vice president of the European Parliament, a sprawling body with limited power (and 14 vice presidents). She had no official business in Qatar. Her trip was private, people who saw her in the V.V.I.P. box said.
And then, less than a day later, she was back in Brussels, delivering an impassioned defense of Qatar against criticism of its exploitation of migrant workers who had built the World Cup stadiums.
“The World Cup in Qatar is proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world,” Ms. Kaili said. She chastised Qatar’s critics as bullies. “They accuse everyone that talks to them or engages, of corruption.”
Less than three weeks later, she was in jail, accused of trading political decisions for cash. The Belgian authorities charged her last weekend alongside her life partner, Francesco Giorgi, and two others in an investigation into Qatari influence. Police raids uncovered €1.5 million in cash. Roughly half that was found in a hotel room occupied by Ms. Kaili’s father; another €150,000 was found in the apartment Ms. Kaili shared with her partner, prosecutors said.
The case, which Belgian authorities say they’ve been building for over a year with the help of their secret services, has uncovered what prosecutors say was a cash-for-favors scheme at the heart of the European Union. And it highlighted the vulnerabilities in an opaque, notoriously bureaucratic system that decides policies for 450 million people in the world’s richest club of nations.
Ms. Kaili’s lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, said she was innocent. “She simply had no knowledge of the cash,” he said. “She did Qatar no favors at all, because all her positions were, in fact, in line with E.U. policy on Qatar.”
Mr. Giorgi’s lawyer had no comment. Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper reported Thursday, citing sealed court documents, that Mr. Giorgi was cooperating with investigators.
Qatar has forcefully denied the allegations.
The investigation has jolted sleepy Brussels and unleashed a flurry of whispered accusations of corrupt behavior by lawmakers of all political stripes. It has also sparked scrutiny of foreign influence at a time when the European Union is asserting itself on issues like human rights and the war in Ukraine.
Apart from Qatar, the Belgian authorities are also investigating links to Morocco, a government official familiar with the matter said.
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
Card 1 of 9
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:
“It has been a difficult week in Brussels,” Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, told E.U. leaders on Thursday. “There will always be some for whom a bag of cash is always worth the risk. It is essential that these people understand that they will get caught.”
Investigators in Washington, too, have tried to crack down on illegal foreign lobbying, including for Qatar, which has separately been accused of bribing its way into being awarded the World Cup. But while American law requires foreign lobbyists to publicly disclose their affiliations, Brussels has few disclosure requirements. Most such influence peddling occurs under the secretive umbrella of diplomacy.
That is especially true in the European Parliament, the least powerful but only directly elected institution in the European Union power structure. Its 705 lawmakers approve legislation and participate in the legislative process, but its debates, events and resolutions have mostly reputational impact for those involved.
“The Parliament is easily accessible and it has become an attractive ground for all kinds of lobbyists,” said Michiel van Hulten, the head of Transparency International E.U. and a former European lawmaker himself. “Because of this, it is relatively easy to operate under the radar and not get caught,” he added.
Eva Kaili, 44, and Francesco Giorgi, 35, started their relationship in Parliament’s labyrinthine halls in 2017, according to people who know them. She was in her first term in office. He was an aide to a senior member of Parliament, Pier Antonio Panzeri. Both were members of the center-left Socialists and Democrats group.
This account is based on interviews with two dozen lawmakers, E.U. and Belgian government officials, and aides directly familiar with the case and the people involved, as well as an examination of private correspondence, years of social media posts, policy drafts and voting records.
Most of those interviewed for this article requested anonymity because they did not want to get dragged into a high-profile criminal investigation.
Ms. Kaili and Mr. Giorgi documented their lives in social media posts that exuded success and confidence: sailing in the Aegean Sea, skiing Mont Blanc, visiting mosques in Oman and drinking cocktails in Minorca.
The couple spent the coronavirus lockdowns together mostly in Athens, Ms. Kaili told Greek tabloids that have long covered her private life, and last February, welcomed a baby girl into the world.
Mr. Giorgi is linked to the corruption investigation not just through his partner, but also his former boss. Mr. Panzeri, 67, was arrested last week at his home in Brussels, where the Belgian police found €600,000 euros ($632,000) in cash. His wife and daughter were also arrested in their hometown near Milan.
Mr. Panzeri’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
The authorities say Mr. Panzeri played a central role in cultivating relations with Qatari and Moroccan officials and facilitating the flow of cash to Brussels, including through a non-governmental organization he leads.
As the World Cup neared, Ms. Kaili’s and Mr. Giorgi’s advocacy of Qatar intensified. She argued against any attempt to condemn the human-rights abuses in Qatar, an absolute monarchy that criminalizes homosexuality and requires a woman under the age of 25 to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad.
She pushed for visa-free travel for Qataris visiting the European Union.
Colleagues said she also undermined Parliament’s scrutiny of Qatar’s handling of the World Cup.
Hannah Neumann, a European lawmaker from Germany who chairs the committee on relations with the Arabian Peninsula, had planned a committee trip to Doha for over a year. Committee members were supposed to critically assess Qatar’s progress before the World Cup kickoff.
Then in late September, the Qatari government abruptly told her the trip had to be canceled because the building where they were to meet was under construction.
So Ms. Neumann said she was stunned and angry a month later, when Ms. Kaili showed up in Doha in her stead. In a whirlwind two-day trip, Ms. Kaili even held a meeting with the head of state, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, which she had seemingly organized herself, people familiar with her visit said.
“She was giving statements that were much more pro-Qatar than the Parliament’s position, pretending to speak on behalf of Parliament,” Ms. Neumann said in an interview with The Times.
Ms. Kaili’s lawyer and a spokesman for the Parliament’s president said that her trip was an official mission.
Two weeks later, in mid-November, a seemingly uncontroversial resolution criticizing Qatar’s human-rights record ran into unexpected resistance. “It was difficult to even put it on the agenda,” said the liberal lawmaker Katalin Cseh. “I was shocked.”
Even Ms. Kaili’s political allies were frustrated. “As social democrats, we should take the lead in putting the spotlight on the human-rights violations,” the Danish lawmaker Niels Fuglsang said in an interview. He said a resolution he drafted criticizing Qatar was opposed by at least one of the people now being investigated — he would not say who — and was ultimately rejected.
It was replaced by one that praised Qatar for reforms that are “an example for the Gulf region.” The new text said that Qatar had “already improved the working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers.” Qatari officials have indeed implemented changes to their labor-sponsorship system, though activists say they are insufficient.
Set on softening the final resolution, Mr. Giorgi, working for a new member of Parliament, sent out an email to all socialist lawmakers to vote down an amendment that said that Qatar had bribed to win the hosting of the World Cup.
“The European Parliament should not accuse a country without evidences coming out from the competent judicial authorities,” said the email, sent in the name of the lawmaker Andrea Cozzolino. When the vote was held Nov. 24, he succeeded in getting the bribery language removed.
Since her arrest, Ms. Kaili has been stripped of her vice-presidential title and expelled from both her Greek party, Pasok, and her European Parliament political group, the Socialists and Democrats. The Greek authorities are also investigating her finances.
The European Parliament was set to vote this week on the Qatar visa-free travel proposal. That vote, and all other work relating to Qatar, has been suspended.
The Gray Zone
Ms. Kaili’s energetic lobbying for the tiny Gulf state was not entirely unusual for the European Parliament.
In the days since the arrests, lawmakers and operatives privately pointed fingers, accusing their rivals of similar clandestine efforts. But the ability to take undisclosed meetings with foreign agents is built into the rules of Parliament.
“It is not an accident that a gray zone exists in Brussels,” said Mr. van Hulten of Transparency International E.U. “This is how the institutions wanted it.”
Ms. Kaili’s statements may not have delivered policy changes, which are mostly crafted by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch. But the Parliament is perfectly suited to produce something Qatar needed: positive publicity.
The scandal could be particularly damaging to Qatar’s reputation abroad at a time when officials would rather focus on their hosting of the World Cup, which they’ve been building toward for more than a decade.
The tournament, which ends Sunday, has been the basis of a grand $220-billion nation-building project for a state the size of Connecticut, and is part of a broader push by Qatar’s rulers to garner influence around the world. Those efforts go beyond sports; they’ve established an international airline and a global media empire, Al Jazeera. And like its Gulf neighbors, Qatar has spent extensively on lobbying in Washington.
Scholars say that those efforts are at least partly motivated by the state’s political insecurity. Qatar is often overshadowed by larger, more powerful neighbors including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The bribery charges have also highlighted a recent change in European Union policy toward Qatar. Amid an energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission has increasingly embraced Qatar as a source of natural gas. Ms. Metsola, the Parliament president, suggested reconsidering that pivot.
“We would rather be cold than bought,” she said this week.
The scandal seems set to ensnare more lawmakers, as the Belgian authorities have raided several aides’ residences. It has also caused deep mistrust.
“I thought the political fights we had were based on honest political assessments leading to different conclusions,” Ms. Neumann said. “But now I know that I was most likely fighting against a corruption network.”
Reporting was contributed by Vivian Nereim in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Koba Ryckewaert in Brussels; Elisabetta Povoledo in Milan; and Gaia Pianigiani in Siena, Italy.