Free tickets, fully paid trips overseas, and other valuable goods were reportedly offered to European politicians by Qatar ahead of the World Cup, as the Gulf state tried to persuade lawmakers to relax their language on the country’s human rights record.
As Qatar sought to improve its public image, the country’s officials in Brussels approached EU lawmakers with offers of lavish gifts, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday.
Five Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from three different political groups told the newspaper that invitations to dinner, as well as promises of free trips and tournament tickets, were extended to them and their colleagues by the Qatari representatives after the start of the 2019 parliamentary term.
The strategy continued into the run-up to the World Cup, which began in November, with MEPs from center-right, liberal, and center-left political groups reportedly saying they were approached by Qatari officials via the Qatar–EU Parliamentary Friendship Group, which liaises with Qatar’s embassy.
“It was a systemic way of approaching Brussels lawmakers with a view to improving the country’s reputation and making sure we would not take a hard stance against the country in terms of civil and social rights,” one MEP told the FT on the condition of anonymity. He said he never accepted any invitations.
Controversy around Qatar
Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup has been a source of international controversy, with many calling out the sport’s governing body, FIFA, for allowing the tournament to take place in a country with such a poor human rights record.
Thousands of migrant workers who worked on infrastructure projects for the World Cup are reported to have died in Qatar since the country was awarded hosting duties, while Qatar’s laws on LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and capital punishment have also been at the center of the debate.
The FT’s report comes after Belgian investigators charged four people in a probe into suspected money laundering and corruption at the European Parliament, involving bribery by a Gulf state thought to be Qatar.
European Parliament Vice President and Greek MEP Eva Kaili was among those arrested when cash worth more than $630,000 was seized by authorities on Friday.
Italian MEP Dino Giarrusso said on Wednesday that he resigned from the Qatar–EU Parliamentary Friendship Group in 2019, shortly after it was set up, because he “realized that the engagement was not normal.”
“They wanted to convince lawmakers there was no exploitation of workers [in Qatar],” he told the FT.
Giarrusso added that he was skeptical about the European Parliament’s joint resolution on human rights in Qatar in relation to the World Cup, which was agreed upon by MEPs last month. He argued it was “an extremely watered-down version of what it could have been” and described the document as “very strange.”
‘Qatar was buying up European influence’
The resolution is reported to have caused division among MEPs, with some reluctant to support any condemnation of Qatar’s human rights record.
In a statement on Monday, French MEP Manon Aubry said she was “left stunned” when she received a proposed draft version of the resolution, saying it “repeatedly congratulated Qatar on its ‘considerable efforts’ in promoting human rights.”
She argued that negotiations and speeches regarding the resolution “left anyone watching in little doubt that Qatar was buying up European influence.”
“In the negotiations I was able to make some progress on the text as long as it didn’t mention Qatar,” she said. “A compensation fund for the victims supplemented by FIFA was okay; a clear statement on the responsibilities of Qatar was out of the question.”
“Out of hundreds of EU lawmakers, straight condemnations of Qatar’s management of the FIFA World Cup were very few,” Giarrusso told the FT this week.
Another lawmaker, Green MEP Hannah Neumann—who chairs the EU’s delegation for relations with the Arab peninsula—told the FT that some embassies make aggressive attempts to influence European decisions. She added that it was “quite obvious” some of her colleagues with alternative political leanings had “a strong pro-Qatari agenda.”
Spokespeople for the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Qatari government did not respond to Fortune’s requests for comment.
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