By Andreas Buerger and Charlotte Van Campenhout
STRASBOURG, Dec 13 (Reuters) – The European Parliament took steps on Tuesday to strip lawmaker Eva Kaili of her senior assembly post after she and others faced charges that World Cup host Qatar lavished them with cash and gifts to influence decisions, charges she has denied.
Kaili, a Greek politician and one of 14 vice presidents in the parliament, was among four people arrested in Belgium at the weekend over the scandal that has triggered outrage in Brussels and risks denting the EU’s image at home and abroad.
The case, in which police uncovered bundles of cash, some of it in a suitcase in a hotel, casts a shadow over the European Parliament which seeks to be a moral compass in Brussels, taking EU governments to task and criticising global rights abuses.
Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.
The parliament acted quickly to loosen ties with Kaili.
“The integrity of @Europarl_EN comes first and foremost,” President Roberta Metsola tweeted as she announced the unanimous vote by leaders of the assembly’s political groups to remove Kaili from the vice president’s role.
Parliament is expected to confirm the decision in a vote at about noon (1100 GMT), although Kaili will remain a lawmaker.
“Her position is that she is innocent, I can tell you that,” Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, Kaili’s lawyer in Greece, told Open TV in a first public comment. “She has nothing to do with financing from Qatar, nothing – explicitly and unequivocally”.
Several EU states including Germany, said the EU’s credibility was at stake. Countries which have faced assembly from the assembly, including EU member Hungary, said it had lost the moral high ground.
“From now on the European Parliament will not be able to speak about corruption in a credible manner,” Hungary Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wrote on Facebook.
Belgian police searched 19 homes and the offices of the parliament from Friday to Monday as part of their investigation and seized computers, mobile phones and cash, some of it found in a suitcase in a hotel room.
Belgian prosecutors said they had suspected for more than four months that a Gulf state was trying to buy influence in Brussels. Although no state was publicly named by prosecutors, a source with knowledge of the case said it was Qatar.
Several European lawmakers called for Kaili to quit.
“Given the extent of the corruption scandal, it is the least we could expect of her,” said MEP Manon Aubry, who co-chairs the Left group.
Manfred Weber, of the conservative European’s People Party, said: “Our colleagues at the European Parliament have been deeply shocked. These developments represent a heavy burden.”
The Greek authorities on Monday froze Kaili’s assets in Greece.
(Additional reporting by Phil Blenkinsop, Karolina Tagaris, Clement Rossignol, Max Schwarz; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Edmund Blair)