In politics, timing is everything.
After days of holding fire over the corruption scandal that has engulfed the European Parliament this week, the center-right European People’s Party went on the offensive on Thursday, attacking the rival Socialists and Democrats for being the main players in the crisis. The EPP slammed the S&D for “hypocrisy” and a “holier-than-thou” attitude.
But they spoke too soon. Within hours, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) announced it was probing two MEPs — not just Greek MEP Eva Kaili, a former member of the socialist group, but also Maria Spyraki, another Greek MEP and member of the EPP.
There is no indication that the EPPO probe is connected to the alleged payments to MEPs by foreign countries, including Qatar and Morocco, but the timing still stings, and undermines attempts to portray malpractice as an S&D preserve.
The announcement that the EU’s top prosecutor is seeking to lift the immunity of Spyraki — a former “MEP of the Year” — has shown that no political group is immune when it comes to investigations into the conduct of parliamentarians, and confirms that yet another probe is underway.
Since the raids by Belgian police last weekend, the crisis rocking the EU had only centered on the S&D — headed by Spanish MEP Iratxe García Pérez. Center stage is Kaili, a (now expelled) member of Greek left-wing party Pasok and one of the most senior members of the group, who was detained by Belgian police last week on corruption charges.
But the S&D’s involvement doesn’t stop there. Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi, an adviser on the Middle East and North Africa to Andrea Cozzolino, another Socialist MEP, has been charged. The Italian was previously an assistant to Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former S&D MEP, now also in jail.
Several other officials connected to the S&D have been embroiled in the saga — the offices of an aide to Marie Arena, the chair of the Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, and an aide to Pietro Bartolo, an Italian socialist MEP and vice-chair of the civil liberties committee, were raided.
The S&D group made some personnel changes on Monday — Arena stepped aside temporarily as chair of the committee, while Bartolo halted his involvement in legislation on visa-free travel for Qatar. But that did not satisfy the EPP, which on Thursday called for Arena to go permanently.
“It is … the responsibility and duty of the S&D Chairwoman of DROI [human rights subcommittee] to protect the image and the credibility of the Subcommittee and that of the Parliament,” senior EPP officials said in a letter to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.
Since the scandal broke last week, the EPP has refrained from attacking the Socialists, but in recent days there have been growing calls from within the party to capitalize on the scandal. On Thursday it seized the moment, issuing a string of hard-hitting social media posts calling out its rival group.
But the naming of one of its own by the EPPO has flipped the attention back on the center-right camp.
Ironically, the change in tack by the EPP was instigated in part by a pre-summit EPP meeting this morning during which Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged colleagues to take a tough line on the S&D.
The Greek prime minister has had more skin in the game than most since the scandal erupted — Kaili, the MEP at the center of the scandal, hails from the opposition Pasok party; whose leader Greek officials admitted they wiretapped earlier this year in a scandal that made international headlines. He urged colleagues to hold the opposition parties to account.
Hours later, one of his own MEPs was named by the EPPO relating to an investigation by OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, regarding fraud related to the EU budget, specifically in relation to the management of the parliamentary allowance. Spyraki, who was previously spokesperson for Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party, said in a statement she had “no connection to Qatargate.”
The ill-timed move to take a more hard-hitting move against the S&D was also backed by German MEP and EPP heavyweight Manfred Weber, the head of the EPP in Parliament — a far cry from his speech on Monday in the European Parliament when he urged MEPs not to use the crisis for “party political battles.”
“The corruption charges against one of our highest representatives of this European Parliament has significantly damaged our institution and affected the trust of people in the European Union as a whole,” he told a plenary session of the Parliament. “The damage to European democracy is too big to be now used for party political battles.”
Politicizing the Parliament’s current woes was always going to be a risky move for the EPP, however. Already, the activities of one of its members, Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský, who heads the Parliament’s friendship with Bahrain, have come under scrutiny. Zdechovský visited Bahrain on a previously undisclosed trip in April this year, but he told POLITICO he paid for the trip personally.
“According to the EP rules, MEPs are not obliged to declare trips that are not paid for by third parties. This trip was this case,” he said. “However, having in mind the current situation and allegations that I am facing, I decided to declare this visit as well. It is unnecessary, but as I have nothing to hide, I would like to be as transparent as possible.”
There were mixed feelings about the shift in strategy from EPP members POLITICO spoke to Thursday.
One MEP said it was risky. “There is absolutely no guarantee that this scandal stops here,” the parliamentarian said, warning that it was impossible to know if all EPP members were clean.
But others were strongly in favor. “I think many people see this as an S&D problem, which it is,” said another. “It’s time to call it for what it is.”
Lili Bayer and Wilhelmine Preussen contributed reporting