Home Society Will she or won’t she? Eva Kaili’s return looms over EU Parliament
Will she or won’t she? Eva Kaili’s return looms over EU Parliament

Will she or won’t she? Eva Kaili’s return looms over EU Parliament

by host

STRASBOURG — Qatargate suspect Eva Kaili keeps threatening to return to the European Parliament to clear her name. So where is she?

Six months after Belgian police charged the Greek MEP in a dizzying corruption scandal alleging foreign powers like Qatar and Morocco illegally consorted with a network of EU lawmakers, Kaili has gathered momentum for a political comeback designed to reframe her narrative as a victim of an inhumane judicial system and an espionage conspiracy.

In the media, Kaili has pushed outlandish spying theories about why she was arrested as well as strong suggestions that other MEPs — hitherto untouched by the scandal — should be investigated while lauding those who visited her in jail. On Twitter, the politician has blocked two journalists, including from POLITICO, and told them she refuses to be interviewed by them while giving interviews to Italian, Spanish, French and Belgian news outlets. Even on LinkedIn, Kaili reposted sympathetic news coverage and thanked well-wishers. 

The anticipation for her return crested over the weekend, roughly two months after her move from jail to house arrest, when Kaili’s lawyers said their client had received special permission from authorities to travel to Strasbourg for this week’s Parliament session.

She didn’t show. 

The reason is the same one her lawyers gave the last time Kaili didn’t appear for a Parliament session: A “personal” obstacle “which cannot be made public” had made it impossible for her to attend after all. 

MEPs and staffers wracked with nervous anticipation for weeks, await the return of Kaili, who still enjoys the full working rights of an MEP. 

While Kaili’s looming homecoming gives her a chance to bolster a narrative, it’s an awkward moment for Parliament, which is still working on internal ethics reforms intended to scrub off the biggest scandal in its history. Outside a committee room where Kaili was expected on Monday evening, far-right French MEP Virginie Joron grumbled about what it all would mean.

“The citizens who have followed the affair can’t understand how she is still sitting here as an MEP,” Joron said.

Kaili’s noisy reentry is a sharp counterpoint to the lowkey return of fellow Qatargate suspect, Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella, who slinked back to Parliament in May after a shorter stint behind bars. 

He has since spent time casting votes, having a quiet drink in the Parliament’s café and speaking about human rights violations in the plenary, all without giving a single interview. Tarabella was expected to speak in the plenary in Strasbourg on Tuesday evening and was spotted in the Swan bar. Tarabella has turned down POLITICO’s interview request.

Presumption of innocence

Kaili’s noisy reentry is a sharp counterpoint to the lowkey return of fellow Qatargate suspect, Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella | Hatim Kaghat/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

Police arrested Kaili at her home on December 9 after piling €600,000 in cash into a suitcase and bundling her father out of the apartment with it. He was promptly arrested at a hotel in Brussels. 

Prosecutors suspect this was some of the bribe money paid to influence the Parliament’s work — but Kaili maintains she knew nothing about it until discovering it that day and has shifted the blame to her partner Francesco Giorgi and his political mentor and former boss, Pier Antonio Panzeri, an ex-MEP.

Panzeri eventually confessed and struck a plea deal with prosecutors, but Kaili — who remains charged with corruption, money laundering and participation in a criminal organization — has stuck to her story. 

After being released to house arrest on April 14, Kaili and her media-savvy lawyers have been pushing that story, part of an aggressive strategy to divide the world into those who are for or against the MEP. 

Against her are MEPs like Sophie in t’Veld, who trashed Kaili’s extravagant claims that she was targeted because of her work as a member of a spyware committee.

Kaili has alighted on several reporters after they took up her case as a cause célèbre about the Belgian justice system’s alleged iniquities. Kaili claims she was denied access to her infant daughter, but prosecutors rejected that, saying she asked for special privileges normally not afforded to others. 

Kaili made sure to praise defenders. In one interview, she thanked Italian lawmaker Deborah Bergamini, who visited her in detention, and Italian MEP Massimiliano Smeriglio, who penned a letter signed by nine other Italian Socialist MEPs complaining about her treatment in jail.

There have also been attempts at image shifting, with Kaili using one media sit-down to portray herself as a fervent defender of integrity at the European Parliament — whose reputation was so dented by the case she is implicated in.

The narrative was crafted amid confusion about whether Kaili could even speak to the press under her release conditions. Her lawyers claimed after her release from house arrest in late May that she was forbidden from doing so, but when a couple of interviews appeared in early June, they then claimed these interviews were conducted before the conditions were imposed.

Kaili has turned down multiple requests for an interview with POLITICO.

What awaits

On Monday, without being physically present, Kaili made another attempt to reshape her narrative.

Kaili now sits with a group of MEPs who don’t belong to any EU grouping | Julien Warnand/EPA-EFE

Parliament President Roberta Metsola announced that Kaili had formally requested an “immunity defense” — essentially asking colleagues to determine whether her legal immunity, which all MEPs enjoy, was breached during the Quatagate probe.

Even if MEPs agreed with her, however, the result would be nonbinding, according to EU case law.

Kaili’s return is likely to be far from triumphant for another reason: A separate fraud case hangs over her as the European Public Prosecutor’s Office pushes to lift her immunity so it can investigate the misuse of around €100,000 of EU money intended for her former parliamentary assistants. 

More broadly, Kaili has been booted out of her Greek party PASOK and dumped from her EU Parliament grouping, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), leaving her politically homeless as she fights a legal battle for her freedom. She now sits with a group of MEPs who don’t belong to any EU grouping. 

An open wound

Some in Parliament have dismissed talk of Kaili’s return as a mere distraction in a week when MEPs are tackling important legislation ranging from regulating artificial intelligence to deciding the fate of the Green Deal’s biodiversity law.

Terry Reintke, co-president of the Greens group, said Tuesday she has the “possibility” to return. “However … investigations are still ongoing and obviously we want justice to be found,” Reintke said.

Just under a year from the EU elections, Kaili’s reappearance will do nothing to assuage those worried about Qatargate fallout damaging both voter turnout and the Parliament’s already-dented public image.

The reemergence comes at a particularly sensitive time for the institution, as it tries to finalize a series of 14 quick-fire ethics and transparency reforms by the summer — formulated precisely to restore faith in the Parliament post-Qatargate.

German MEP Moritz Körner, from the Renew group, sent a letter to Parliament President Roberta Metsola last week — seen by POLITICO — asking her to block Tarabella and Kaili’s ability to vote or take part in debates on certain topics. 

“The credibility of our decision-making process is undermined when Members against whom allegations of corruption are continuing to be upheld participate in votes on issues such as budgetary affairs, rule of law, fighting corruption and relations with third countries,” Körner wrote in the letter dated June 6.

Fresh raids by Belgian prosecutors last week in the Parliament’s Brussels base were a reminder that the case is still underway. 

MEP Andrea Cozzolino is also charged in the Qatargate probe, but there is little prospect of him returning to work anytime soon | Benoit Bourgeois/European Union

In other ways, Parliament is moving on. Last week, the police peeled back the tape covering the doors of Kaili’s spacious 13th-floor corner office in Brussels. The reason: Marc Angel, the S&D MEP elected to replace Kaili as vice president, needed to move in.

Kaili, no longer a VP, will get a smaller office a few floors lower down. 

A third MEP — Andrea Cozzolino — is also charged in the Qatargate probe, but there is little prospect of him returning to work anytime soon as he fights extradition to Belgium and is yet to be interviewed.

Aside from the ethics reforms, the legislative work of Parliament itself is still stalled in some areas due to the scandal, such as a proposal to waive the need for Qataris to have visas to enter the EU. 

Kaili raised eyebrows by voting on that file at a committee meeting on December 1 despite having no reason to be at that committee meeting.

And yet.

If at a future trial, Kaili is found to have been totally innocent that could provide the real fuel for a true political comeback.

Source link