The corruption scandal rocking Brussels continues to widen: Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino has been arrested in Naples on a European warrant while MEP Marc Tarabella has been criminally charged, joining a group of four people awaiting trial.
The investigation centres on an alleged cash-for-favours scheme that involved “large sums” of money and “substantial” gifts paid to influence EU decision-making, according to Belgian authorities.
At least €1.5 million in cash have been seized across dozens of raids.
The countries suspected to be behind the illicit lobbying are Qatar and Morocco. Both have vigorously contested the claims and denied any wrongdoing.
The arrest of the two lawmakers, formally associated with the socialist group, was made possible after their own colleagues lifted their parliamentary immunity earlier this month, paving the way for the police intervention.
Cozzolino was stopped by authorities on Friday after leaving a health clinic in Naples and was informed he was the subject of a European arrest warrant, Italian media reported.
Cozzolino was then taken to the Poggioreale prison and was later placed on house arrest as a precautionary measure to prevent his flight.
Belgian police had tried to find the MEP when they went to raid his Brussels residence but he was already in Italy, leading to the issuance of an arrest warrant.
An extradition hearing is expected to take place on Tuesday.
Cozzolino has said he is “calm” and has trust in the justice system. His lawyer defends his client’s innocence and vows to fight the extradition.
Scrutiny over the Italian MEP has been intense ever since his assistant, Francesco Giorgi, was arrested and charged in mid-December.
In his leaked confession, Giorgi directly accused Cozzolino and Tarabella of accepting money from Qatar and Morocco, a charge the lawmakers refuted.
First elected in 2019, Cozzolino served as the chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with Maghreb countries, which covers Morocco, until he was removed over the growing suspicions.
Tarabella criminally charged
Another name that has been on the radar of Belgian authorities is Marc Tarabella.
Tarabella was detained by Belgian police on Friday morning while he was in Anthisnes, a small French-speaking town in which he serves as mayor.
As part of the operation, police searched several offices inside the Anthisnes town hall as well as a bank safe located in Liège.
The following day, a judge charged Tarabella with participation in a criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering, and was sent to the Saint Gilles prison.
These are the same charges faced by Greek MEP Eva Kaili, her domestic partner Francesco Giorgi, former MEP Pier-Antonio Panzeri and NGO director Niccolò Figà-Talamanca.
Kaili, Giorgi and Panzeri remain in prison, while Figà-Talamanca has been released.
Separate pre-trial hearings for Kaili, Panzeri and Tarabella are scheduled to take place on Thursday, the prosecutor’s office told Euronews.
Panzeri, the presumed intermediary between the Arab countries and the hemicycle, has signed a deal with authorities in which he admits his criminal participation in bribery and commits to sharing “revealing” details about the cash-for-favour scheme.
According to Belgian media, Panzeri has confessed to handing over €120,000 in cash to Tarabella over several instalments in relation to the latter’s work on Qatar-related issues.
But Tarabella’s lawyer disputes Panzeri’s credibility and insists his client has never received any cash or gift in exchange for political influence.
“No new element has been presented to corroborate the accusations of money transactions, nothing new has been presented. The only incriminating elements are the words of Mr Panzeri against my client,” Maxim Töller said in a statement seen by Euronews.
“It only takes the defamation of a person, recognised as the head of a criminal organisation, to provoke such a tsunami and unjustly smear Mr Tarabella.”
First elected to the European Parliament in 2004, Tarabella sat on the delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula, known as DARP, which covers Qatar, until he was asked to step down.
Back in November, Tarabella defended Qatar’s labour rights in the context of the FIFA World Cup, using similar arguments to those voiced by Eva Kaili in the same plenary session.
“What is important is that, when the lights of the World Cup have gone out, the positive evolution continues not only in Qatar, but it can spread to all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula,” Tarabella said, speaking in French.
In early December, Tarabella voted in favour of a visa waiver for Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens, a legislative file that has since then been put on hold.
Despite being stripped away from their parliamentary immunity and committee positions, both Tarabella and Cozzolino remain MEPs with a post-tax salary of €7,146 per month.