Le Monde: 'Qatargate: How members of the European Parliament voted on Qatar
As suspicion turns inwards, members of the European Parliament are wondering to what extent Qatar managed to influence voting choices. 'Le Monde' analyses their record.
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To what extent did Qatar manage to influence European democracy? This has been the question on everybody's mind since revelations about the pro-emirate scheme to bribe MEPs began to surface on Friday, December 9.
In a text adopted after the scandal, the European Parliament expressed concern that its recent decisions on Qatar "are likely to have been altered by corruption and undue influence."
At this stage, the names of only suspected MEPs have leaked to the press: Eva Kaili (Greece), Marc Tarabella and Maria Arena (Belgium), and Alessandra Moretti and Andrea Cozzolino (Italy). All are members of the moderate left-wing Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group. Yet they are far from the only ones who have taken conciliatory positions towards Qatar in recent months, as is shown by an analysis of voting results in the European Parliament.
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Corruption or herd instinct?
In Strasbourg, on November 21, a debate was held on the human rights situation in Qatar, right as the World Cup was beginning. Unsatisfied by the holding of a simple discussion, French left-wing MEP Manon Aubry suggested a vote on a resolution; in other words, a political text summarizing the European Parliament's position on the matter. The idea was approved thanks to a coalition between the radical left, the Greens, and the centrists.
But it was largely rejected (by 86%) by the left-wing S&D group. Does this raise suspicion of corruption among the 73 representatives who voted against Ms. Aubry's proposal as well as among those who abstained? Not necessarily, according to several experts on the European Parliament, who interpret it more as a herd instinct by members.
"The group told us to vote against it," said Raphaël Glucksmann. While the French MEP decided to disobey this partisan discipline, the instructions were followed by most of his S&D colleagues, including French socialist Eric Andrieu, who explained that he respected "the line set within the group," even if he regretted it "with hindsight."
An influential Italian MP
So who set this "line"? Many clues point to MEP Andrea Cozzolino, who is now suspended from the group because he is suspected of having been corrupted by Qatar. The Italian MEP had a great deal of influence in the S&D group because he was responsible for "urgency resolutions," which are topical texts regularly voted by the Parliament to take a position on foreign policy issues or rights violations.
'Some people probably followed without knowing what they were voting on because the vote on amendments is complex and passes very quickly,' explained Raphaël Glucksmann
"When you have to take a position on a subject you don't know well, you tend to trust the colleagues who are working on it," explained Mr. Andrieu. "It happened very quickly, there wasn't much time to define a line," agreed Mr. Glucksmann. "In these situations, a few representatives can easily win over their group. This means that intervening with leaders like Cozzolino was very strategic for Qatar," added a parliamentary assistant. "It seems that a small group of corrupt MEPs managed some skillful maneuvers to take the reins on the group on issues related to Qatar," noted Ms. Aubry.
The influence of pro-Qatar MEPs was confirmed the following days during discussions on the content of the resolution. The Greens and the radical left proposed several amendments to harden the text, which was initially very consensual, by highlighting human rights violations in Qatar and the problems related to the organization of the World Cup in terms of corruption, its carbon footprint, and respect for minorities. But Andrea Cozzolino encouraged his colleagues to oppose it, arguing that it was better to wait for the conclusion of the Parliament's inspection mission to Qatar before taking a position. He even sent emails to convince them, as shown by Euractiv.
Alerted by "shocking, outlandish pro-Qatar remarks" made during group meetings, Mr. Glucksmann and his French colleagues decided to "re-examine each amendment and vote for those that were in line with [their] principles." A job that most of the other S&D members did not do. "Some people probably followed without knowing what they were voting on because the vote on amendments is complex and passes very quickly," noted Mr. Glucksmann. Socialist Pedro Marques, who, three days earlier, had criticized the organization of the World Cup, voted against most of the amendments along these lines. "In my colleagues' defense, we vote on so many issues that we can't be all in on each one. The fact that they didn't take the time doesn't mean that they support such pro-Qatar positions," said Mr. Glucksmann, whose analysis was shared by many European sources consulted by Le Monde.
Suspicions about other groups
Has Qatari lobbying, whether legal or corrupt, extended beyond the social democratic group? While no information has yet emerged from the Belgian judicial investigation, many observers suspect that it has. In fact, the great majority of the EPP (conservative right), ECR (nationalist right) and ID (far right) groups also voted against the principle of a resolution on Qatar, and again against most of the amendments tightening the text. On condition of anonymity, one EPP member told the Financial Times that he had received an offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to Qatar from representatives of the emirate, which he interpreted as a move to influence his position in the Parliament. However, French MEP Anne Sander (Les Républicains, conservative) firmly denies any bias in favor of Qatar: "We voted against it because as a matter of principle we are not very fond of resolutions produced in a hurry, for which MEPs do not necessarily have all the information."
'In such meetings, some groups defend positions that they would never defend publicly,' noted Manon Aubry
However, there are some specific cases that raise questions. For example, Estonia's Urmas Paet and Spain's José Ramon Bauza, both members of the much-maligned EU-Qatar Parliamentary Friendship Group, did not approve any of the amendments criticizing the emirate, which is in contradiction with the position of their group, Renew (centrists). Estonia's Andrus Ansip, a former EU commissioner, also rejected the bills. When asked, he said that criticism against Qatar was "disproportionate to the positive developments in the country."
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"Beyond corruption, there are a thousand reasons that could have pushed these MEPs to take these positions," said an expert on the European Parliament. "Personal ties with Qatar, pressure from their national governments, or even simply a passion for football and a preference not to spoil the party!"
Another source pointed out that MEPs' votes in a plenary session are ultimately only the tip of the iceberg: "What is important is what happens before: influence is used in the negotiations between the groups, away from the public eye." This view is shared by Ms. Aubry, who stated that the EPP and S&D refused the idea of a resolution on Qatar in 2022 more than 10 times, within the secrecy of the Conference of Presidents: "In such meetings, some groups defend positions that they would never defend publicly. This shows that the opacity of our institutions facilitates corruption."
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