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Who is Maria Arena, the 4th MEP caught up in Qatargate?

Who is Maria Arena, the 4th MEP caught up in Qatargate?

by host

BRUSSELS — And then there were four. 

Belgian lawmaker Maria Arena became the fourth current member of the European Parliament this week to be fully embroiled in the Qatargate corruption scandal, seven months after a spate of high-profile arrests shook the EU to its core.

She remains unquestioned, uncharged and the Belgian authorities have made no request to lift her parliamentary immunity. But police did conduct six raids at properties linked to the Belgian MEP and her family on Wednesday, in the latest twist in a scandal that prompted soul-searching and ethics reforms in the EU capital this year. 

Former Vice President and Greek MEP Eva Kaili, Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella and Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino have spent time detained and charged in the scandal, while Pier Antonio Panzeri, an ex-MEP, admitted his guilt and struck a plea bargain in return for a reduced sentence when the time comes.

Arena and the four current or former lawmakers charged in the scandal built their careers on the center left, and sat in the Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament. Kaili, Tarabella and Cozzolino were all booted out of the grouping earlier this year.

Though the Italian-speaking Arena adamantly has denied wrongdoing, it came as little surprise she was pulled more deeply into the investigation this week, given that her name has been raised in connection with the scandal since the very beginning by the Italian and Belgian press.

Arena, her lawyer and press officers of the S&D group did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

Amid growing focus on her potential involvement at the start of the year, she stepped down from her parliamentary role as chair of the subcommittee on human rights the same day POLITICO revealed she failed to declare a paid-for trip to Qatar in May 2022.

In line with Belgian constitutional law, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola returned to Brussels to be present at the raids of Arena’s properties in the north of the city on Wednesday, the penultimate day before the Parliament wraps up for the summer.

For Arena, who hails from Mons in southern Belgium, the episode may well spark memories of the raids at the house of her fellow Socialist Walloon MEP Marc Tarabella — where Metsola was also present — back in December. Some two months later MEPs lifted his immunity, and he was arrested by Belgian police, charged with corruption and spent months in prison before being released pending trial. He protests his innocence.

Arena’s connections

Arena has some connection to almost everyone involved. Most importantly, there is her close relationship with the central suspect Pier Antonio Panzeri.

They overlapped in Parliament during Panzeri’s last term in office, between 2014 and 2019. Arena, who was at that stage a first-time MEP, built a reputation as a formidable human rights defender with a strong track record on environmental policy within the left wing of the Socialists and Democrats grouping, where Panzeri was an esteemed if rather low-key member.

Former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

She has described her relationship with the experienced ex-MEP as purely professional, while Panzeri through his lawyer has described them as “very close.”

Le Soir reported Arena and Panzeri had contact 389 separate times by phone in the space of nine months between mid-December 2021 and mid-December 2022, during a period when Panzeri had long ceased to be an elected politician.

The ties between her and Panzeri are many, even after Panzeri left Parliament in spring 2019. One of Arena’s parliamentary assistants worked at Panzeri’s human rights outfit Fight Impunity while another parliamentary staffer worked for both MEPs.

Le Soir on Wednesday reported she is suspected to have received gifts from Qatar. Arena’s name also appeared in an arrest warrant for Cozzolino earlier this year, where she was named as being part of a small group of lawmakers who would do Panzeri’s bidding in the Parliament. 

Panzeri, according to leaked testimonies obtained by POLITICO, played down Arena’s alleged role in the Qatargate fallout. Panzeri also told investigators he travelled to Morocco with Arena on the dime of a Moroccan diplomat in 2015 — but said Arena was not aware of who sponsored the trip. Panzeri’s lawyer said in January that Panzeri sees her as an “extremely straight” person who has nothing to do with the case.

In media interviews, another chief suspect, Eva Kaili, heavily hinted Arena has been protected from tough questions by prosecutors up until now — but the Greek MEP provided no evidence to back up why this might be the case.

Most recently, Arena loomed large in the resignation of the Belgian judge leading the criminal probe, Michel Claise, who announced he would step aside amid allegations of conflict of interest involving both of their sons. 

The decision came after lawyers for another primary suspect, MEP Tarabella, found out that Claise’s son was involved in a medicinal cannabis business with Arena’s son. In 2019, Arena organized a high-profile event in the European Parliament sponsored by her son’s medical cannabis trade association, a potential conflict of interest.

According to Tarabella’s lawyer, the connection could explain why Arena has stayed out of jail and remains uncharged while several of her colleagues spent months behind bars as authorities collected evidence — even though authorities say Claise only recused himself out of extreme caution.

Elisa Braün contributed reporting.

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