By Irina Tsukerman
Since the scandal related to allegations of bribery and corruption among a group of MEPs in Brussels broke out four months ago, European media zeroed in on a relatively small cast of ringleaders and the NGOs surrounding them. Much of the media investigation has focused on human rights NGOs and the misuse of nepotistic political influence among the core group of politicos and their assorted aides and associates on key issues ranging from human rights to airway deals to cryptocurrency and tech innovation. The rumor mill is swirling round and round. The dubious deals with Qatar Airlines were recommended by the European Commission – the real power in the EU – despite the scandal of a key European stakeholder receiving free trips during the negotiations. The inconclusive debate over transparency rules and anti-corruption measures continues, but many argue such changes would unlikely to curtail the impact of lobbying by foreign powers.
The scandal is curious in itself because the European Parliament, although central to the allegations of Qatar exercising undue influence to receive favorable treatment on many fronts, is not essential to European decisionmaking. Furthermore, some could argue that the events in question, filled with speculation, plot twists, blame-shifting, inter-European power struggles (such as the bureaucratic stand-off between Brussels and Rome over the extradition of one of the accused), and assorted inconsistencies and mysteries, are a diversion from much bigger issues of Qatar and other states’ soft power plays in Europe. Much has been written about Qatar’s financial infusion into the real estate markets in London and Paris, European football teams, political lobbies, and Muslim Brotherhood-linked institutions.
The impact of these investments, measured in the billions, not millions like the MEP lobby, could potentially be more far-reaching. Where Qatargate has focused mostly on the sportswashing of the corruptly obtained World Cup championship hosting rights in 2022, on the political attacks against Saudi Arabia and UAE, and on a few lucrative deals central to Qatar’s use of airlines to advance its geopolitical ambitions around the world, Qatar’s much greater investments directly into the economies of some of the member states ensure a non-interventionist approach to much more serious wrongdoings by members of the Al Thani royal family, such as their abductions of asylum seekers, involvement in spreading extremist ideology, and links to terrorist groups. These far more serious issues, however, have been surprisingly absent from the media outrage over this most recent corruption scandal – though foreign government lobbying is par for the course in Europe, and has not stopped as a result of this scandal. Qatar denied the allegations of wrongdoing, and indeed none of the countries involved in the investigation seem keen on downgrading relations with Doha despite its role in illicit lobbying and the corruption of the MEPs. The blame has shifted to the politicians. This is where this already convoluted story gets even more bizarre.
“Qatargate” evolves into “Moroccogate”
Somehow this “Qatargate” expanded to include allegations against Morocco. But unlike the cold hard cash found in the house of one of the primary suspects, Eva Kaili, there is no money trail, no clear evidence of wrongdoing, and nothing but hearsay concerning the Moroccan narrative. Indeed, the Morocco-related allegations hinge on several disparate and disjointed stories, most of them focusing on one diplomat, Ambassador Abderrahim Atmoun, currently stationed in Poland. At one point the Morocco narrative even alleged that one of its heads of intelligence, Yassine Mansouri, the head of the country’s external intelligence agency, met one of the suspect MEPs. However, despite hints at the numerous documents that allegedly point to a big plot, Politico, which aired these allegations, never came back with anything consequential – perhaps because it is not uncommon for heads of intelligence to appear at various occasions where politicians of all backgrounds and interests also happen to be present.It should be noted that in the deal reached by Panzeri there are no further mentions of Mr. Mansouri.
The publications recycling the Morocco rumors have so far failed to delineate a clear story linking the MEPs in question to evidence of obvious wrongdoing related to Rabat’s interest. The most recent allegations, by the star witness in the case, focusing on the same Moroccan Ambassador, likewise provide just enough to feed the rumor mill. The Former MEP in question, Antonio Panzeri, has agreed to testify against his cohorts in exchange for being released to domestic arrest instead of spending time in jail pre-trial. His testimony in any case will be self-serving; but, if the initial findings only link the cash evidence to Qatar-related lobbying efforts, why is Panzeri sinking his own boat by pushing out additional information that may be impossible to verify and that hinges solely on his testimony?
Panzeri’s diversionary tactics – spotlight on Morocco
First, Panzeri may simply be offering to sell all his political contacts down the river to please the European authorities. He may – erroneously or otherwise – believe that if he gives something “extra”, he has more bargaining value and if his allegations lead to additional arrest or discoveries, he will get a better deal. The truth value of his proposition is of no import to his calculus. It is not beyond comprehension that a state actor may use informal relationships to advance its interests; giving a particular diplomat’s name makes Panzeri look more valuable even if nothing untoward is ultimately found to have transpired. After all, Panzeri’s comments on the situation so far appear speculative. He claims that the Moroccan government footed the bill for his travels, but expects his audience to take these assertions at face value. In doing so, he only further discredits himself.
He further asserts that the Moroccan government then requested a sort of quid pro quo – political favors in exchange for his trips. But it’s unclear whether Panzeri ever delivered on these requests. It is not illegal to try to get politicians to help out on an issue. It is only questionable and unethical if these exchanges involve outright bribery and concrete arrangements. Panzeri’s statements are worded as a classical character assassination effort against Morocco: just enough innuendo to induce concern but nothing that could in any legal or political sense constitute an infringement of European national sovereignty. This is salacious gossip for the media, not information of value to prosecutors investigating serious interference with democracy in EU. If Panzeri thinks simply badmouthing an important ally of the European Union will get him off the hook with the Qatar matter, he is misjudging the legal system.
But Panzeri’s comments underscore that there could be more to the story than desperation to avoid accountability for taking Qatari money even at the cost of public ridicule and making himself look greedy, shady, treacherous, and unscrupulous. Panzeri makes a clear distinction that whereas the Moroccan government allegedly asked him for favors (which he was free to deny, ignore, or fulfill in some politically ethical way), he and the other suspects were the ones to approach Qatar and to actively lobby Doha for contracts and opportunities to do favors. Panzeri is not only admitting to a crime, in this case, but is downplaying Doha’s role! While he was eager to sacrifice his friend the Moroccan ambassador, Panzeri is willing to take the blame for initiating criminal transactions with Qatar. Whereas it is routine for various interests to offer campaign contributions for favors; officials soliciting bribes and butting private deals is much rarer. With this admission, Panzeri just sacrificed his own defense for the sake of Doha. Why?
Qatar is a Threat to its Own Assets
To understand what’s at stake here, it’s worth going back to December 2022, when Eva Kaili, a mother of a young child, was not released for Christmas because the judge ruled she was at risk of a possible abduction by Qatar – her former illicit employer! That scandalous accusation was never properly investigated by the media; we have also not heard much from the European Commission about these and other disturbing claims. Qatar Airlines was allegedly involved in abduction plots and an employee, a British/French dual national named Marc Bennett, died under extremely suspicious circumstances in Qatar after a dispute over his transition to a job with a firm owned by Qatar’s rival, Saudi Arabia.
Where Panzeri was willing to sell out his former friends to get out of jail in exchange for merely a limited advantage of an electronic bracelet and domestic confinement without a possibility even of a short walk once a day, the judge appeared genuinely fearful for Kaili’s life. There is no inconsistency here; Panzeri figured out how to draw a line to maximize his benefit without risking abduction. He would whitewash Qatar’s role in this scenario, making it seem like he harassed Doha officials for contracts, but soften his image by making himself look like a victim of manipulations by Moroccan government via Ambassador Atmoun. That ruse, however, falls apart upon examination. It is obvious that Panzeri is still doing Qatar’s bidding; whether he is hopeful that he can manage to come out dry from this and return to a career with his Gulf friends or whether, like the judge in Kaili’s case, he saw a warning against further exposing Qatar remains to be uncovered. But more likely than not, Qatar is just as much a beneficiary of the anti-Morocco blameshifting as Panzeri himself, if not more.
First, adding in a new player shields Doha from detailed scrutiny. Second, while the European investigators are fixated on the corruption of their MEPs, the play here might be much bigger than this operation. Many strange questions surface. For instance, why would Qataris pay Kaili in cash, and why would she keep all that money at home, instead of transferring the payments to some offshore accounts? Why have the Europeans accepted Qatar’s denial of interference without any pushback? Some of these strange occurrences suggest that the MEPs and their various associates may have been pawns in a much larger game – and were sacrificed, just as their chess analogues – for bigger political gain. (The Coldest Game, a Polish espionage film exploring the chess rivalry between the US and the Soviets at the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, provides the best possible illustration of such a scenario in both contexts). As mentioned at the start of this piece, none of the issues that Qatar lobbied about and that came to the surface here were paramount to Qatar’s real interests, which were being handled by people with much more power. The European Parliament was all about the optics. If Qatar were to sacrifice a few minor assets to gain control of a political narrative and undermine other players, that would be a win regardless of what happened to these assets.
Indeed, that is exactly how the situation played out; not only Morocco, but UAE, and several other countries came under scrutiny as a result of Qatargate. Morocco, however, remains the leading target outside Qatar itself. There are two compelling reasons why Qatar wants Morocco targeted at the EU Parliament.
The Great Game: European Interests in Morocco Converge with Qatar’s Concerns
First, this relates to the battle of European interests over Morocco. Morocco is, on the one hand, of significant interest for energy, phosphates/fertilizer, and digital space concerns within the EU, which makes relations with Rabat a high priority, particularly in the midst of assorted global crises. On the other hand, many of the very same prospective patrons and investors, particularly in France, see Morocco as a colony of sorts, a country to be controlled by the European capitals. The Kingdom’s moves to assert national sovereignty priorities do not sit well within this mindset because an independent Morocco that can grow wealthy from its natural resources, including new discoveries of rare earth deposits, is on the way to becoming a powerful force that can choose winners in the market, rather than be dictated terms of business by European companies. When King Mohammed VI in his 46th Green Day March anniversary speech outlined that business priority would be given to countries recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over its southern Saharan provinces, this did not set well with the Europeans – and their top investor in Doha – not out of some sentimental concern for the separatist and troublesome Polisario, but out of the realization that Morocco is opening its doors to the US, which could be a very serious competitor to European interests.
The second concern was that Morocco could use this issue as political leverage to attract preferred investors and to close doors to those countries that do not play by its rules in the future. Because of Qatar’s significant investments in all aspects of many of the leading EU states and the UK, many of these interests are hard to separate. But while Qatar, like many of the other Arab states, moved quickly to recognize sovereignty, it was also worried by competition from a different angle – Israel, which, simultaneously with US recognition of Moroccan Sahara, restored its relations with Rabat, and upgraded the relationship to welcome overt business, direct diplomacy, and much more integrated security and defense cooperation. Israel’s presence in Morocco is unsuitable to Qatar for two ideological and pragmatic reasons.
Ideologically, Qatar is led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and by the royal family which has close ties to various Islamist militias all over the world. It is willing to trade with Israel on certain matters but does not wish a people-to-people relationship to flourish; Israeli presence and a greater role in Morocco would challenge the Islamist PJD party’s ideological hold on society. The practical reason is Israel’s security cooperation with Morocco, particularly in the cybersecurity realm. Israel’s powerful cyber weapons could be used by Morocco to detect and uncover Qatar-backed agents of influence who work hand in hand with radicalized Moroccan opposition assets, terrorist groups, and Iran-backed militias in the region, with whom Qatar enjoys a significant affinity. Qatar, therefore, found common ground with those European factions that oppose Morocco’s interest in forging its own path independent of their dictat.
Qatar’s Anti-Western Coalition Targets Rabat
The second factor contributing to this complicated dynamic is the fact that Qatar is not acting on its outsized political ambitions in isolation, but rather in concert with several other states, particularly when it comes to the European Union. These states include Iran and Armenia, which in turn are often linked to Russian influence campaigns, ranging from NGOs to business deals. Russia’s historic defense hold over Yerevan may be to blame, but regardless, in recent years, Armenia, in opposition to the energy-rich Azerbaijan, grew closer to Iran and Qatar on matters of energy, transportation, politics, and defense. Russia uses Armenia as a proxy to advance its aims in European politics, such as with regards to the war in Ukraine.
Moreover, Russia is also a leading backer of Algeria, Morocco’s neighbor and the power behind the separatist Polisario group, which was in recent years trained and funded by Iran and Hezbullah – leading to a diplomatic break between Rabat and Tehran. Each has different interests in Morocco. Russia is using Rabat to bypass energy sanctions and is building a civilian nuclear reactor – but looks for any opportunity to infiltrate or weaken and embarrass the historic US ally; Iran wants a return to Morocco’s markets but also wishes to export the Islamic Revolution to the overwhelmingly Sunni majority country, hoping to encircle the last solidly pro-Western hold out in North Africa, prospectively gaining access to its coast and expanding its naval influence by building a base.
Algeria’s lobby in Europe against Morocco benefits from any scandals involving the Kingdom. And while Armenia may not have any direct interests in Morocco itself, it employs the same relationship as its cohorts, and benefits from the same networks. Similar to Algeria’s support for Polisario, Armenia indirectly supports and promotes a fictitious self-proclaimed separatist enclave of “Artsakh” in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. While each member’s own agenda may seem far afield, there is a logic to these machinations.
All these interests also converge over wishing to disrupt Morocco’s cybersecurity and defense relations with Israel. The rogue regimes in particular are concerned about having a powerful weapon in the hands of their enemy. The Europeans wish to monopolize the sphere and to exert control over Morocco by virtue of entrenching their own surveillance and security systems. Thus, simultaneous with the Qatargate accusations against Morocco, the European Union organized a political campaign targeting Morocco on the basis of human rights, leading to a unanimous resolution condemning Rabat for the first time in 25 years – pertaining to the imprisonment of a convicted sex offender Omar Radi. Attacking Morocco’s judiciary came as part and parcel of other campaigns accusing Morocco of misuse of the Israeli spyware tool Pegasus, which Radi alleged was used against him. These findings of Pegasus were recently questioned by an American digital forensics specialist Jonathan Scott, adding to the growing choir of skeptics. This concurrent targeting of Rabat with various scandals was aimed to discredit the Kingdom’s image, to cause disarray among internal institutions, to undermine the intelligence agencies, to cause chaos, and most importantly – to weaken the perceived authority of the sovereign, King Mohammed VI.
At the end of the day, while each agency or ministry was attacked or implicated by these various scandals launched and weaponized during the same time period by the same interests with the political and financial backing from the same state and non-state actors, all are focused against the policy and vision set by the monarch. In that context, these baseless allegations should be seen as a concerted political effort to isolate the Kingdom, to subvert its standing and sovereignty, and to undermine the will of the king in the policy direction he sets forth for the kingdom. Far from being just another predictable backlash from the envious or the disgruntled, it is a serious, strategic effort to put the pillar of Morocco’s independence and unity under the control. Until the specific faces and sources of funding behind the real “Corruptiongate” are outed and held accountable, the hijacking and misuse of European institutions in antidemocratic and illiberal ways will remain a menace.