February 3, 2023

Corruption scandal risks fracturing pro-EU majority in parliament

Column chart showing the growth in numbers of private fusion companies from 1992 to 2020


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Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.

What a way to end the year: Instead of the habitual policy-intensive, but otherwise civil final days before winter break, members of the European parliament have started a blame game that could lead to a deepening schism among the four largest pro-EU groups. The reason is of course Qatargate, the scandal you can read more about here.

This alleged bribery case may also have repercussions for the security of gas supply at a time when Europe is scrambling to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels — Qatar being the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. We’ll hear what the Gulf state had to say on the matter.

Expect some energy ministers to weigh in on this today as they meet in Brussels in a last-ditch attempt to agree a gas price cap formula.

The thaw in UK-EU relations continued yesterday as the two concluded their first big agreement since the Brexit trade and cooperation deal. London signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the North Seas Energy Cooperation (NSEC) forum. It allows the UK to develop renewables projects in the North Sea jointly with Belgium, Denmark, France and six other countries. 

Bad romance

Roberta Metsola, president of the European parliament, last week urged her colleagues “to resist the temptation to exploit this moment for political gain” after the arrest of current and former Socialist members for alleged corruption, write Andy Bounds and Javier Espinoza in Brussels.

“The allegations are not about left or right or north or south,” she said on Monday.

Well, a week is a long time in politics. By Thursday her centre-right political family, the European People’s party, had dubbed Qatargate “an S&D scandal”, referring to the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group in parliament. (EPP and S&D are the two largest of the four pro-EU groups in the European parliament, followed by the Greens and the liberal Renew group.)

The EPP attack was not just a rogue tweet. It was a full Twitter thread, complete with a banner, posted on the party’s official account.

In it, the EPP claims its centre-left ally is nothing but a “holier-than-thou” hypocrite on the rule of law that has now completely lost its high moral ground. The party also dismissed the idea that this could be a systemic issue, not just a few bad apples in the Socialist camp.

“This scandal is not an orphan. It did not appear out of nowhere. It did not happen by itself. It has a name. It has an address. And that’s the S&D Group,” the EPP tweeted.

The Renew group (led by the party of French president Emmanuel Macron) took a more dignified stance, urging colleagues to focus on the foreign bribery attempts rather than blaming each other. Katalin Cseh, vice-chair of Renew Europe, described the EPP attack as “appalling”, especially since it came just days after both Metsola and Manfred Weber, the head of the EPP, urged colleagues to refrain from political low blows.

The S&D, on the defensive, have also deplored their colleagues’ attitude. “A sad turn, and a cheap shot,” Socialist MEP Paul Tang told Europe Express. “If the EPP keep this up, this will certainly sour relations,” he said, adding that this could turn into “mayhem” if the blame game spins out of control. Tang however expressed hope that rightwing colleagues “will tone down” in the new year.

Not everyone in the centre-right group is happy about the open political back-stabbing. One EPP lawmaker told Europe Express they thought the reaction of their group was “far too much”. Especially since on Thursday, it emerged that one of their own MEPs, Greece’s Maria Spyraki is being investigated by the European Public Prosecutor’s Office for alleged fraud with EU money.

Political rivals were quick to jump on the trolling. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose party was up until recently part of the EPP, tweeted a picture of the bags of cash seized in Brussels. “This is what the rule of law looks like,” Orbán wrote in reference to his stand-off with the EU over failure to tackle corruption that culminated with the freeze of €6.3bn in his country’s cohesion money.

Also feeling vindicated is France’s Marine Le Pen, a former far-right MEP investigated for fraud with EU money and for accepting Russian funds for her campaign. “They dragged us through the mud because of a completely transparent and perfectly legal loan from a Czech-Russian bank. Meanwhile, Qatar was spending suitcases of banknotes on all these corrupt people from the so-called ‘good side’,” she tweeted.

In addition to blaming the Socialists, the EPP said it would withdraw support from all emergency resolutions — the monthly votes that usually involve condemning human rights abuses. They also raised questions about the role of NGOs in the legislative process, as one of the lines of investigation against the charged suspects is that they funnelled bribes through human rights groups to influence EU policy.

The Greens (the fourth group in the pro-EU majority) say this is a huge overreaction and opportunism. “The European parliament has done a tremendous job defending human rights around the world,” said Terry Reintke, their co-president. We will keep voting for resolutions, putting pressure on governments.

“The EPP is trying to undermine trust in civil society and NGOs,” Reintke said.

Chart du jour: Betting on fusion

Last week’s FT exclusive about a US breakthrough in fusion technology was confirmed, potentially opening the door to pollution-free energy. The industry has recently benefited from an unprecedented influx of investor money, with at least $2.83bn raised by private fusion companies in the months to June, more than had been raised overall in the decades-long history of the industry.

LNG fallout?

One of the first thoughts that crossed many EU politicians’ minds when Qatargate exploded was how long it would take until the country would start alluding to all that liquefied natural gas the continent badly needs. Well, yesterday, that veiled threat was made and then partly rowed back, write Simeon Kerr and Javier Espinoza.

Not only does Qatar refute all allegations of being behind any corrupt schemes at the EU parliament, but it also decries the “discriminatory” treatment, given that its diplomats were the only ones banned from the EU assembly, even though Morocco was also named in the case.

“The decision to impose such a discriminatory restriction that limits dialogue and co-operation on Qatar before the legal process has ended, will negatively affect regional and global security co-operation, as well as ongoing discussions around global energy poverty and security,” said a Qatari diplomat.

The diplomat flagged all the forms of co-operation between Qatar and Belgium, during the Covid-19 pandemic, during the Afghanistan evacuation and its role “as an important supplier of LNG to Belgium”.

“Despite Qatar’s commitment to growing the partnership further, it is deeply disappointing that the Belgian government made no effort to engage with our government to establish the facts once they became aware of the allegations,” the diplomat said.

A few hours later, the diplomat clarified that “we aren’t threatening to cut supplies or anything. We are simply saying [that] to stop communication in EU parliament this way limits co-operation.”

The diplomat insisted that Qatar was not politicising oil and gas exports.

Last week, a senior EU official acknowledged the scandal was not helping, given the important role Qatar played in securing more LNG after Russia invaded Ukraine. “I am not naive. I know that because of what happened, it will have an effect. It will make the relationship much more difficult, much more tough, it is absolutely certain,” said the senior official.

A spokesman for Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo declined to comment.

Veiled threat or not, the next time an EU leader sits down with Qatari officials to discuss LNG supplies, the corruption scandal fallout will make for a very awkward conversation.

What to watch today

  1. EU energy ministers meet in Brussels

  2. EU parliament president Roberta Metsola speaks in Romanian parliament

  3. World Trade Organization general council meeting in Geneva

Notable, Quotable

This newsletter has been corrected as Hungary’s Fidesz party has not joined any other group after leaving the EPP. A previous version said they were members of the European Conservatives and Reformists.

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