ATHENS (Reuters) – Eva Kaili’s career charted a meteoric rise from student activism in Greece to the highest echelons of European lawmaking but now faces an equally precipitous fall after her arrest in a corruption probe involving World Cup host Qatar.
After climbing to become one of 14 vice presidents in the European Parliament, the 44-year-old was among four people arrested and charged on Sunday in Belgium over allegations that Qatar lavished them with cash and gifts to influence decisions.
Kaili, who defended the World Cup host in the European assembly last month against those trying to “bully” Doha over its treatment of migrant workers, denies any wrongdoing.
Qatar also denies the accusations.
But shaken by the scandal, European lawmakers stripped Kaili of her role as vice president on Tuesday. Some colleagues also said she should quit as an MEP, while the Greek socialist PASOK party she represents is expelling her.
An architect by training and a former TV newsreader, Kaili was among a group of young Greek politicians who emerged in the debilitating Greek debt crisis from 2010 to 2015.
While Greece secured three international bailouts, Athens regularly clashed with other European Union capitals, transforming Greek politics and creating an environment in which Kaili and others ready to challenge veteran politicians thrived.
“She always had ambition,” said a former PASOK official who has known Kaili and her family since her student days in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki.
“The position of VP suited her like a glove,” the official said of her European Parliament post of vice president, which she secured after being elected to the EU parliament in 2014.
In a parliamentary session on Nov. 21 to discuss the rights situation related to the World Cup, she defended Qatar, which has faced intense criticism from human rights groups over its treatment of migrant workers during preparations for the event.
Kaili, who visited the Kuwait and Qatar at the end of October and start of November, cited the International Labour Office saying Qatar had been “introducing labour rights … and introducing minimum wage despite the challenges.”
She added: “They committed to a vision by choice, they opened to the world. Still, some here are calling to discriminate them. They bully them and accuse everyone, who talks or engages, of corruption.”
Three days later, the European parliament approved a resolution calling on FIFA to help compensate families of migrant workers who died and workers who suffered rights abuses.
Kaili was a student activist at university and by the age of 24 was a municipal councillor in Thessaloniki.
She then spent three years as a television newsreader for the Greek channel MEGA TV before she was elected to parliament in 2007. At 29, she was the youngest PASOK lawmaker to be elected to the Greek assembly.
In the Greek parliament during the financial meltdown, she challenged then Prime Minister George Papandreou over his handling of the debt crisis, and threatened at one point to withhold crucial parliamentary support.
Responding to charges she is now facing in Belgium, Kaili’s lawyer in Greece, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, told Open TV: “Her position is that she is innocent, I can tell you that.”
“She has nothing to do with financing from Qatar, nothing, explicitly and unequivocally,” he added.
Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Edmund Blair