Chair of Marie Arena in, for her, better times in the European Parliament. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET


Qatargate scandal takes murky turn as photo of Arena and Panzeri emerges

The Qatargate scandal engulfing Europe took a murky turn on June 20 after the emergence of a photo showing what appeared to be an intimate embrace between the investigators' main witness and a Belgian Socialist MEP.


The Qatargate scandal engulfing Europe took a murky turn on June 20 after the emergence of a photo showing what appeared to be an intimate embrace between the investigators’ main witness and a Belgian Socialist MEP.

MEP Maria Arena, who denies any wrongdoing, was pictured in an apparent ‘selfie’ taken with Antonio Panzeri, the Italian former MEP who has struck a plea-bargain deal with investigators.

The photo, aired by Belgian broadcaster RTL, was reportedly taken in Rome in 2018. According to the broadcaster, the image suggests the two were “perhaps more than just friends”.

Coming just two days after the Qatargate lead investigator, Michel Claise, was forced to step down, emergence of the photo raises questions as to why Arena, a former chair of the European parliament human rights sub-committee, has not been officially questioned despite being mentioned in leaked investigators’ files.

Maxim Töller, a lawyer who represents one of the MEPs accused in the investigation, told RTL that the nature of the connection between Arena and Panzeri was now “central” to the investigation. “It will need answering”, he said. The relationship, according to information Töller said he received, was “more important than that which has been described until now”.

Panzeri, according to Belgian media, has told investigators that Arena was innocent of any charges. Referring to Panzeri, Töller said “these are corrupt words from a corrupt man”. He questioned why judges had believed Panzeri without verifying his claims as to who was innocent and who guilty, claims that led to several arrests and pre-trial detentions (since lifted).

Lead investigator Claise recused – disqualified – himself from the Qatargate investigation on June 19, citing potential “conflicts of interest”. It was subsequently revealed that his son and the son of Arena were in business together. It was also suggested the two businessmen might have used accountants that are also under investigation. Töller asked why, given that the apparent conflict of interest must have been known to Claise from the start of the investigation, he had accepted the case in the first place.

According to rumours circulating in the European Parliament, the trials of those accused had been due to begin in September. However, observers say that if the chief witness, Panzeri, proves to have been unreliable, that start date could be in doubt. Claise, meanwhile, has now been replaced by another chief investigator.

Contacted by Brussels Signal, Arena’s assistant said: “Mrs Arena is currently abroad for a mission of the European Parliament this week and will not be reachable for any comments.”

Asked if these latest revelations might have an impact on the investigation and, more specifically, on Arena’s position, a prosecutor’s spokesman told Brussels Signal there would be no comment on an ongoing investigation.

Qatar denies accusations that its agents bribed MEPs with cash in exchange for favourable treatment regarding the country’s dealings in Europe.