Originally published: https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/crime-story-heart-european-parliament

Politicians and trade union leaders have been apprehended for their alleged bribe-taking and influence-peddling on behalf of Qatar — but the corruption around the 2022 World Cup has been clear from the start, explains NICK WRIGHT

Nick Wright, Morning Star | 22 December 2022

An anti-corruption investigation by Belgian police has scooped up a vice-president of the European Parliament, Greek MEP Eva Kaili; her partner Francesco Giorgi who is an adviser in the parliament and a figure in the Fight Impunity NGO; Kaili’s father Alexandros and a former MEP, Pier Antonio Panzeri.

In addition to a stash of €600,000 in cash, mobile phones and computers were also seized.

Since then another figure caught up in the sweep, Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, the secretary general of the NGO No Peace Without Justice — which shares prestigious offices with Fight Impunity — has been arrested, questioned, fitted with an electronic tag and released from custody.

The cash pile has since mounted, with a new total of €1.5 million seized from a score of addresses in Italy, Belgium and France.

Apart from Kaili and Panzeri, the big fish first netted by Belgian prosecutors was the newly elected general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Luca Visentini. The Italian trade union functionary was elevated from his previous position as head of the European Trade Union Confederation at the ITUC conference in Melbourne earlier this year.

Released from custody on Monday, Visentini claimed the €50,000 he received from the NGO was a donation toward his campaign for general secretary. Told by prosecutors to stay within the EU, Visentini said: “Everything I did was done in good faith. Being involved in this investigation has been a shock for me and my family, and I will do whatever is necessary to clear up the situation and prove my innocence.”

Kaili was immediately dumped by her Pasok party in Greece, and by the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament.

Belgian prosecutors coyly suggested that their “major investigation” into the “offence of criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering” concerned a country in the Persian Gulf.

The Brussels bush telegraph and the Belgian media immediately outed Qatar as the state in the sights of the investigators.

The Belgian prosecutors said: “It is suspected that third parties in political and strategic positions within the European Parliament were paid large sums of money or offered substantial gifts to influence decisions.”

Controversy follows the glamorous former TV presenter and Pasok MP. Her Facebook allegations that Greek communists murdered her grandfather collapsed when it transpired that her timeline would have meant her grandmother had remained pregnant for several years. In the European Parliament, she is notorious for her highly contested suggestion that Qatar’s labour market is a model for other countries.

Taking the Doha championships as her tribune she proclaimed: “Today, the World Cup in Qatar is proof, actually, of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historical transformation of a country with reforms that inspired the Arab world.”

Defending the regime, she suggested that critical voices raised against Qatar’s labour practices were discriminatory: “They bully them, and they accuse everyone that talks to them of corruption.”

Kaili’s Qatar booster was matched by the ITUC and its leading figures who have given the Qatari authorities a clean bill of health.

The controversy around Qatar’s labour laws illustrates a problem with the ITUC approach brought to a head in the messaging around the World Cup. By focusing on effecting a change in the legal framework governing work practices in Qatar, it remained disconnected from any attempt to organise the workforce into trade unions.

The notion that employment rights can be conferred exclusively by cosmetic and largely rhetorical modifications of labour law in the absence of effective trade union organisation is unlikely to convince any experienced trade unionist.

Our TUC itself agrees: “But labour laws are only as good as their enforcement and the ability of workers to seek justice and compensation for their abuse.”

The TUC said it had received many reports that the picture on the ground did not reflect the progress on Qatar’s statute books.

The human price paid by the migrant workers who constructed the World Cup facilities is staggering. From south Asia alone around 6,000 workers have died. Against this, the Qatari authorities claim that just a few dozen died in the construction — in fierce heat ­– of an entire metro system, seven stadiums, scores of hotels, an international airport and the associated infrastructure.

The Centre for Indian Trade Unions says that approximately 85 per cent of Qatar’s three million population are migrant workers. Collective bargaining structures and meaningful legal representation are non-existent. A handful of joint committees exist, covering just 2 per cent of the workforce. The vast labour force involved in the construction work for the World Cup had no union protection.

An action bought by the ITUC’s affiliate — the Bangladeshi Free Trade Union Congress — concerning Fifa’s alleged wrongful conduct and liability for human rights violations in connection with the 2022 World Cup was rejected by a Swiss court.

Kaili’s spectacular fall from favour is matched by Visentini’s defenestration. His boots are presently filled by former TUC functionary Owen Tudor who became ITUC deputy general secretary in Melbourne.

Both Qatar and the ITUC went into damage limitation lockdown. The Qatari regime said it “categorically rejects any attempts to associate it with accusations of misconduct,” and said that “any association of the Qatari government with the reported claims is baseless and gravely misinformed.”

The ITUC bravely insisted that the “ITUC’s work on Qatar has, since the beginning, been entirely based on objective analysis and assessment of the facts, and any suggestion that any other entity, from Qatar or anywhere else, has influenced the ITUC’s position is entirely false.”

The rival World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) took a different approach: “The arrest of Visentini, secretary general of the ITUC, as well as the arrest of important officials of the European Union and more specifically of the European Parliament, following investigations that seem to have been ongoing for some time, demonstrate another disgusting side of the political system and the European Union bureaucracy; corruption and decay.

“This incident brings to light unholy deals and bribes, which in this particular case are linked with the cover-up of terrible crimes committed against thousands of workers, many of whom lost their very lives during their daily work so that the propaganda fiesta of a corrupt regime be carried out; so that incredible profits of various business groups be ensured.”

The scandal took a new turn with the arrest on a European warrant — in his home turf of Calusco d’Adda near Bergamano — of the wife and daughter of former MEP and Partito Democratico politician Pier Antonio Panzeri. Cash was found in his Brussels residence.

The warrant accused Panzeri of “intervening politically with members working at the European Parliament for the benefit of Qatar and Morocco” and accuses his wife and daughter of participating in a criminal organisation and of money laundering.

In a caustic commentary, the Italian daily La Repubblica traced Panzeri’s trajectory “raised in the Communist Party school … the man passed from the barricades in defence of ‘rights and social security’ to the centre of ‘international co-operation’.”

“For some, it was ‘the comrade who had made it,’ for others, simply, the designated, or the predestined path to be sent to Brussels.”

Panzeri, who founded Fight Impunity before he became an MEP, was responsible for European affairs in the Italian General Confederation of Labour union (CGIL).

La Repubblica notes: “Then came the workers of Qatar, and those minorities and those rights for which Panzeri founded his NGO Fight Impunity, that is the pivot — according to the Belgian investigators — of the system attributable to the former Partito Democratico MEP. Fighting impunity and in the meantime — if the accusations are confirmed — pocketing bribes from countries that live with impunity.”

The scandal points to a culture of entitlement and privilege in which key figures in the upper echelons of the Socialist and Democratic grouping in the European Parliament and Western-orientated trade union internationals are accused of corruption and influence-peddling.

The ITUC — to which the British TUC is affiliated — is the latest iteration of the US-sponsored 1949 split from the WFTU. It was reconstituted in 2006 from a merger with the Christian-orientated World Congress of Labour

Today the ITUC and its regional confederations like the European TUC represent most trade unions in the developed capitalist countries in Europe, Australia, Canada and the US. A previous holder of the top European TUC job was former TUC general secretary John Monks.

In Latin America and Asia, it is challenged by the WFTU which, following the cold war split, united trade unionists in the socialist countries with global South unions — and the main class-orientated unions in Europe.

There were expectations that with the entry into the European TUC of the left-led Spanish Comisiones Obreras, French CGT and Italian CGIL that the balance of power might change but little has affected the cosy relationship with the European Union from which much of its funding derives.

In the latest turn, Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino — who was chair of the European Parliament’s committee responsible for relations with Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria — has been suspended by the Partito Democratico until the investigation into the EU corruption scandal ends.

Recollect that his former assistant Giorgi was held by police with his partner, the Greek MEP Kaili.

And just this week, the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group, in addition to Cozzolino, suspended MEPs Marc Tarabella and Maria Arena from Belgium and Pietro Bartolo from Italy.

Reuters and the Belgian newspaper Le Soir now report that Giorgi has confessed to taking bribes from Qatar and fingered Cozzolino and Tarabella in the style of a “romanzo criminale” to take the heat off Kaili.

Nick Wright can be found on Twitter @NicholasBWright and www.21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com.