Belgian Socialist MEP Marie Arena has opened up for the first time about Qatargate accusations that have put her in the spotlight.
She is completely innocent, she says, and has no knowledge about the origins of the the hundreds of thousands of euros police found in her son’s apartment.
She also denied having an ongoing relationship with chief suspect and police informant Antonio Panzeri.
Arena spoke to Belgian newspapers Le Soir and La Libre Belgique in her first interview since the cash-for-favours storm erupted in January.
In July, police raided her home in relation to the inquiry.
“I have nothing to do with this case. But now, it is important for me to set the record straight,” the MEP said.
She wanted to reach out to her voters who “trusted the causes I championed. These people do not understand why I am not responding to the attacks that are everywhere today”.
She began by addressing her son and the fact that the police found almost €300,000 in cash at his home during a raid. “We are not responsible for our children, who are 32 years old, adults, and vaccinated,” Arena said.
“It affects me because I am a mother. But what is clear is that I have nothing to do with what was found in my son’s possession. And it has nothing to do with Qatar. I can assure you with complete certainty.”
Arena said she had no idea where that money originated, adding, “And I don’t want to know.”
The MEP said: “I have a principle: I have never mixed my children with my political affairs. Never, ever. No mixing of roles.
“My children have their lives, and I have mine. And each of us is responsible for our own actions. Have you ever seen me with my sons?”
The only exception, she claimed, was a conference about cannabis held in the European Parliament in collaboration with the pro-cannabis non-profit organisation ACTIVE, where her son, Ugo Lemaire, was and still is president. This was a conflict of interest, it has been claimed.
Arena said it was the only time anything like that happened. “What’s interesting is that I approached him … And if you look at the proceedings of that conference, it was great.”
She went on to insist she and her son had never taken any gifts from Qatar. “My father used to say, ‘When you climb the mast, you must ensure you don’t have a hole in your pants.’ And I have always climbed the mast. It’s the concept of irreproachability.
“As for gifts, I have always refused them … To be attacked on this notion today goes too far,” she said, adding she had only received a “valueless” vase that she showed to the press in December.
Police informant Antonio Panzeri, who has struck a plea deal, is suspected of keeping Arena out of the Qatargate fray until recently out of friendship. But Arena she said she does not need protection. On the contrary, she said she feels “deeply betrayed” by Panzeri, who has told investigators he bribed parliamentarians.
“These people have destroyed our values, attacked democracy – when we see how Parliament has been attacked over this Qatargate case. It’s destructive, and we are on the eve of elections …”
She also said: “No, Panzeri is no longer my friend. It’s clear. I don’t want to see him. I hope to never see him again in my life. And I will hold it against him for the rest of my life.”
Arena insisted that she never had a romantic relationship with Panzeri. “The proof is, if I had had a romantic relationship with him, the press would not have manipulated a selfie of us in Rome in 2018 by cutting out the third person on my right,” she said.
She also denied any friendship with the former lead investigative judge, Michel Claise. “I don’t personally know Judge Claise, I have never met him. I knew him through his advocacy, and he demonstrated his integrity in this matter,” she said.
“His actions showed that he was not protecting me,” she added. “The parties involved in the case have an interest in attacking Judge Claise. That’s their defence, their only defence.”
It is the first time Arena has spoken out about the Qatargate affair. In this instance, her comments happened “informally” and she was, it was reported, accompanied by two lawyers.
They insisted Arena is not implicated in the scandal by the justice system. “She has not been questioned, she has not been charged, she has not been deprived of her liberty, she has not even been questioned as a witness, and her immunity has not been lifted … Total silence from the justice system,” they said.
The lawyers added they had advised Arena “to defend herself against accusations that the justice system has not made”.
Several MEPs are suspected of having accepted large sums of money from Qatar and Morocco, and possibly other countries, in exchange for decisions favouring those countries.
Arena’s name has been mentioned in connection with the Qatargate investigation since the beginning due to her then-close friendship with Panzeri and her alleged contact with others involved in the case.
She has not been accused of any wrongdoing.