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What Europe’s ‘Qatargate’ Is—and Isn’t

The European Union is plagued by a corruption scandal—but not quite in the way many suggest.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola attends a press conference during European Council Summit in Brussels, on December 15, 2022.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola attends a press conference during European Council Summit in Brussels, on December 15, 2022.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola attends a press conference during European Council Summit in Brussels, on December 15, 2022. JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Eleven days before last Christmas, the French radio program Les Matins de France Culture dedicated a segment to “Qatargate,” the corruption scandal in the European Parliament that had just broken. The two guests were a French member of the European Parliament (MEP) and a journalist for the newspaper Le Figaro specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. Within minutes, the conversation drifted from the cash found at a Greek MEP’s home in Brussels and the offices of parliamentary assistants that had been searched and sealed to Qatar’s lavish spending in Paris in recent years.

This is just one sign that we have to be careful about labeling Qatargate as a European problem or, as a French far-left MEP said last week, “a chronic disease of the European institutions.” Not only is there no evidence, for the moment, that other European institutions outside the European Parliament are affected, but national institutions and politicians also seem to be grappling with problems of a similar nature.

On the radio broadcast, the guests discussed how, under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, politicians were reportedly not averse to “gifts” from the tiny Gulf state, home to one of the world’s largest sovereign funds. Already, in 2016, in a book called Nos très chers émirs, journalists accused a French deputy minister of having received money from Qatar in exchange for political favors; he denied the accusation. French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the guests said, had allegedly received such expensive gifts from Qatar that he had discreetly returned them through the French Embassy in Doha.

Eleven days before last Christmas, the French radio program Les Matins de France Culture dedicated a segment to “Qatargate,” the corruption scandal in the European Parliament that had just broken. The two guests were a French member of the European Parliament (MEP) and a journalist for the newspaper Le Figaro specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. Within minutes, the conversation drifted from the cash found at a Greek MEP’s home in Brussels and the offices of parliamentary assistants that had been searched and sealed to Qatar’s lavish spending in Paris in recent years.

This is just one sign that we have to be careful about labeling Qatargate as a European problem or, as a French far-left MEP said last week, “a chronic disease of the European institutions.” Not only is there no evidence, for the moment, that other European institutions outside the European Parliament are affected, but national institutions and politicians also seem to be grappling with problems of a similar nature.

On the radio broadcast, the guests discussed how, under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, politicians were reportedly not averse to “gifts” from the tiny Gulf state, home to one of the world’s largest sovereign funds. Already, in 2016, in a book called Nos très chers émirs, journalists accused a French deputy minister of having received money from Qatar in exchange for political favors; he denied the accusation. French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the guests said, had allegedly received such expensive gifts from Qatar that he had discreetly returned them through the French Embassy in Doha.

The Belgian judiciary investigation into Qatargate is ongoing. It is too early to draw conclusions. One suspect just entered a plea bargain with the Belgian prosecutor to exchange information for a reduced sentence. Still, many media reports (including several articles about massive, technically legal, Qatari investments in Germany in recent years) suggest that the problem extends beyond European Union institutions in Brussels. (It also extends beyond Qatar: The ongoing investigation focuses on Morocco as well.)

The current scandal is just one example of the flow of money and gifts from foreign governments designed to influence policy decisions in European countries. Europeans—not only in their joint parliament in Brussels but in their national corridors of power—would do well to revamp their anti-corruption laws.

So far in Qatargate, four people have been hit with preliminary charges of corruption, money laundering, and participation in a criminal organization. Around 1.5 million euros in cash has been found. So far, the revelations remain confined to the European Parliament, with four people associated with the legislature held in detention. No other EU institutions are implicated.

Still, one commentator wrote that Qatargate “has deeply wounded public trust in the EU.” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was quoted as saying it put Europe’s “credibility” on the line. And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggested it undermines citizens’ “trust in our institutions.” At the moment, though, those statements are premature.

The assertions that all EU institutions are implicated reveal a strange bias. When national scandals erupt in Germany involving a public institution, no one—certainly not political leaders such as Baerbock or von der Leyen—suggests that the credibility of “all” German institutions, let alone trust in Germany, is damaged.

In 2021, for example, two conservative lawmakers resigned after revelations emerged that they had used political connections to earn about 2 million euros ($2.3 million) in a public deal buying masks during the pandemic. Individuals were disgraced, but no one suggested the scandal went beyond the Bundestag. Later, a court in Munich acquitted the lawmakers. The former legislators argued the payments were in exchange for helping to negotiate the deal, in their private capacity as lawyers. According to the law, this was perfectly legal. In a damaging comment, the director of the Germany branch of the anti-corruption nongovernmental organization Transparency International concluded that the law against graft for elected officials in Germany was not up to standard and was “in urgent need of strengthening.”

In the wake of the collapse of the German payment company Wirecard in 2020 moreover, the chief executives of no fewer than four German financial regulators were forced to resign because they had not done their jobs properly. Again, no one suggested Germany’s credibility was on the line or that other institutions were tarnished, too. The German authorities started to look for new directors and to discuss avenues to improve the performance of the regulators.

When it comes to the EU—which has stricter anti-corruption and ethics regulations than the German Bundestag and the Dutch parliament, for instance—the approach should be no different: Stick to the facts, refrain from sweeping statements, and implement lessons learned.

There are, however, already important lessons that can be drawn from Qatargate.

One lesson is that the European Parliament, which has laxer lobbying and integrity rules than the European Commission, must throw its rotten apples out of the basket immediately and take swift action to prevent more bribery scandals. The days should be over when MEPs get away with being subjected to less strict ethics rules than those applied to other EU institutions. For the moment, it looks like Qatargate is, as Alberto Alemanno, a professor specializing in European Union law, put it, “a case of self-inflicted damage.” For example, corporate lobbyists are more regulated than lobbyists for third countries seeking to influence Brussels lawmakers. The acceptance of paid trips offered by foreign governments, for instance, was no problem—they just had to be declared afterward. Now, triggered by Qatargate, it appears several MEPs who accepted government-sponsored trips to Qatar and Morocco “forgot” to declare those.

The president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, seems to have understood that rules need to be tightened. She recently presented 14 proposals and said: “There will be no impunity. None.” In the weeks and months ahead, she must be held to that promise.

Other European institutions, even if they remain untouched by Qatargate, must also take a fresh look at existing anti-corruption rules. This is because of the second lesson that can be drawn from Qatargate so far: In an increasingly mercantilist world, where large and small powers jockey for resources and influence, countries like Qatar are increasingly using their wealth to secure geopolitical protection. As lobbying expert Ben Freeman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington said: “This is the tip of the iceberg. For every cockroach you see, there are 20 more behind the cabinet.”

According to Freeman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia have moved into the top 10 of big spenders at lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. Alliances in the Gulf region are shifting fast. U.S. and Chinese pressure on resources and political positioning have increased in recent years. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched a major boycott against Qatar after political disagreements between them erupted. Following the boycott, Qatar quadrupled its lobbying budget in the United States alone. It sponsors Congress’s annual baseball game, for example. It also curries favor with other powers. It is said to have paid for 440,000 pounds’ worth of trips for British legislators over the past decade. In Europe, it sponsors and buys museums, media companies, think tanks, and universities. Other Gulf states do the same. Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have now improved. Those between Qatar and the UAE are still frosty. “All of these governments … really want to have the largest mind space among Western governments,” Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Politico. Sources in Brussels say Qatar, having “lost” Washington during Donald Trump’s presidency (Trump took sides with Saudi Arabia), was desperate to increase political support from the EU.

If Qatar did so illegally—which it denies—it probably will not suffer major damage. Using wasta, a complex system of connections maintained with gifts and favors, is normal in the Arab world. Those who are corrupted, however, pay a major price. The Greek MEP and vice president of the European Parliament has not been indicted yet but has already lost her seat.

We live in times of geopolitical turmoil. It is likely that more bribery attempts will be coming Europe’s way. The problem is that European countries are weaning themselves off Russian gas and urgently need more gas deliveries from Qatar and other Gulf states. If it turns out Qatar has indeed bribed MEPs, Europeans will hardly be in a position to punish the country. The same goes for Morocco, whose support is needed to fight illegal migration into Europe.

This leaves Europeans with just one solution: stricter anti-corruption rules and more oversight. In short, becoming incorruptible.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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