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Morocco’s Occupation of Western Sahara Is at Center of Growing European Parliament Bribery Scandal

StoryDecember 19, 2022
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A corruption scandal involving Qatar and Morocco is rocking the European Union, with authorities in Belgium earlier this month raiding the homes and offices of multiple European Parliament lawmakers for allegedly accepting bribes from the two governments. The raids recovered hundreds of thousands of euros in cash. Among those arrested was European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili, who in the lead-up to the World Cup repeatedly defended Qatar against critics. Ana Gomes, a retired Portuguese diplomat who was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019, says that while the investigation was initially focused on Qatar, “it looks more and more that Morocco should be the center of the investigation.” We also speak with Francesco Bastagli, a former United Nations special representative for Western Sahara, who notes that Morocco has cultivated a sophisticated network of “friends” in Europe who have helped the country in trade agreements and in gaining acceptance for its illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

While the World Cup has ended, with Argentina defeating France in the finals, we turn now to look at a bribery scandal involving Qatar, the host of the World Cup, that’s rocked the European Parliament. Earlier this month, authorities in Belgium raided the homes and offices of European Parliament lawmakers, accusing them of accepting bribes from government officials in Qatar, as well as — and this isn’t being reported as much — as well as Morocco. The raids recovered hundreds of thousands of euros in cash.

Among those arrested was the European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili of Greece. In the lead-up to the World Cup, she repeatedly defended Qatar against critics who pointed to the monarchy’s dismal record on workers’ rights and its persecution of LGBTQ people.

The scandal has also exposed how Morocco has tried to lobby and bribe members of the European Parliament in attempt to increase support for its illegal occupation of Western Sahara, which is known by many as Africa’s last colony.

Another person arrested was former European Parliament member Antonio Panzeri of Italy. He was accused of, quote, “intervening politically with members working at the European Parliament for the benefit of Qatar and Morocco.”

We’re joined now by two guests. Francesco Bastagli is a former United Nations Mission and special representative of Kofi Annan for the Western Sahara. Ana Gomes is a retired Portuguese diplomat. She was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019, where she was part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. She’s joining us from Portugal.

Ana Gomes, let’s begin with you. Can you explain to a global audience what this investigation is all about, when it comes to both Qatar and, not as well known, to Morocco?

ANA GOMES: Well, the authorities of Belgium — the judicial authorities of Belgium have done this investigation, apparently led by suspicions regarding peddling of interests by Qatar through a number of people, including this Vice-President of the European Parliament Eva Kaili, a Greek member of Parliament, and other people, namely working with a human rights NGO called Fight Impunity that had been funded by the former MEP Antonio Panzeri.

The investigation regarding Qatar, the suspicions about Qatar, actually are leading more and more to the fact that there is a network operating in the European Parliament, for long, actually established by Morocco. So, Qatar is not the center of the investigation. It looks more and more that Morocco should be the center of this investigation, because, indeed, relatives, for instance, of Panzeri, the former MEP, who established this NGO to cover up for this corruption network — Panzeri had his wife and his daughter arrested in Italy at the request of the judicial authorities of Belgium, because they were aware and they were benefiting, since long, from money sent by Morocco. And apparently this is leading to a network that was indeed established and directed by the secret service of Morocco.

I am not surprised. I was not surprised. As soon as I heard that Mr. Panzeri was involved in this case regarding Qatar, I immediately was suspicious, and said it publicly, that this would link to Morocco, because for all these years, three mandates in which I have served in the European Parliament, served exactly together with Panzeri in the same political group, we had a number of disputes exactly because of Western Sahara. All the time he was trying to protect the interests of Morocco, preventing that we would focus on human rights in Morocco itself and, of course, the human rights of the people of Western Sahara, which have their basic and number one human right, which is the right to self-determination, violated by Morocco, since long.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Francesco Bastagli into the conversation, former U.N. special representative for Western Sahara. Talk more about — I mean, you’ve got the bribing of European Parliament members, now behind bars, on Qatar, workers’ rights issues, stopping resolutions going forward condemning Qatar’s human rights issues, and Morocco. And talk about what this bribery has meant over the years, especially when it comes to trade agreements. And remember, you’re talking to a global audience. Many are not even aware of Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

FRANCESCO BASTAGLI: Sure. Thank you. Good morning.

Just to reinforce what was said by the previous speaker, there is a cluster, a sort of group of friends, revolving around the European Parliament, and parliamentarians themselves, that for a long time have been channeling these illicit interests of their sponsors in a way to sustain their agendas within the Parliament. On the part of Morocco — and this group of friends is very articulate, in the sense not just in terms of numbers or, you know, level or stature of the participants, but they do a very thorough job. In other words, they don’t just channel money or resources; they also facilitate the identification of parliamentarians that could be — because of the nature of their functions and responsibilities within the Parliament, can be of greater use to their clients and create occasions where these parliamentarians can be approached through social gatherings, through visiting missions and so on. So it’s a very articulate system, which includes also monitoring the behavior of parliamentarians that have been bribed, to make sure that, you know, they vote or behave or lobby in line with what is expected of them.

Now, when it comes to Morocco, as which was rightly said, Morocco has a long tradition of a very aggressive presence both in terms of bilateral relations with key countries or in international fora, such as the U.N. and European Union, in support of its agenda. And this indeed has had a tremendous impact on two dimensions, that’s already been hinted. One, of course, in the sphere of economic and trade relations, and we are talking about European Union in this particular instance, where repeatedly Morocco has been trying to include the territory Western Sahara in these agricultural, fisheries agreements with the European Union. This is very important, because Western Sahara is very rich in — you know, fishing fields of Western Sahara are among the richest in the world. Western Sahara is a major producer of phosphates that are extremely important for the production of fertilizers and so on. So, whenever Morocco was signing any trade agreement with the European Union, it was very important that this agreement should include the territory of Western Sahara. And this is where the lobbying effort of the friends of Morocco became extremely important, so much so that twice the agreements between the European Union and Morocco included the territory and resources of Western Sahara, and twice the European Court nullified, declared these agreements invalid. And yet again, the Parliament is reviving an effort to sign a fishery agreement with Morocco including Western Sahara. So, the [inaudible] also this attitude of the European Parliament is, to say the least, revealing of a certain extreme strength of Morocco in that forum.

Now, on the question of Western Sahara, Western Sahara is a part of the greatest lobbying effort of Morocco not just in the EU but also vis-à-vis the United Nations, because basically what we have in Western Sahara is an illegal occupation of a former colony. When Spain left in '75, 1975, Morocco occupied illegally, in collusion with the Spanish authority, the territory. Under U.N. Charter, international law, the Sahrawis should have been allowed a referendum for self-determination, which is the way it happened in many former colonies in Africa and elsewhere. This referendum was never held. Morocco doesn't allow this to be held. And it has, since '75, been occupying illegally this territory. So this is the context. In spite of that, and thanks to its lobbying effort, Morocco has always been able to prevent the U.N. to enforce its obligation to allow for a self-determination referendum. Which are the main friends or supporter of Morocco in this refusal to honor the international legality are the influential members of the Security Council, such as the United States and France. In Europe, Spain, the former colonial master of Western Sahara, also is very supporting of Morocco's reluctance or refusal, indeed, to grant these people what is owed to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of 1975 and Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara, Ana Gomes, that was the same year that Indonesia invaded East Timor, killing a third of the population, one of the worst genocides of the late 20th century. But the U.N. was able to sponsor a referendum in 1999 for East Timor. The people overwhelmingly voted for their freedom. And Timor-Leste, East Timor, is now an independent nation. Why has the course of Western Sahara been so different? And is this bribery of European officials a part of that?

ANA GOMES: [inaudible] stressed by the previous speaker, the role of some states — the United States, France and Spain, in particular — in protecting the regime in Morocco and in supporting the regime in its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. I, as a diplomat who have worked a lot on the East Timor liberation case, when I entered the European Parliament in 2004, I was absolutely flabbergasted to see that in the European Union people were treating Sahara as if it didn’t exist, as if it was part of Morocco. And it’s as if international law, and namely the right to self-determination, would not exist. And I started protesting. And I was often overruled, so to say, because we should not deny the interests of these big states. And this was clear in these agreements on agriculture and on fisheries, that with the support of some members in the European Parliament, including myself, were brought to the courts, European Court of Justice, as it was mentioned, and the European Court of Justice very clearly established this was against international law.

But still there is this persistence. And, yes, for that persistence, apart from the governments of these European states and, of course, the protection of the United States, as well, there are — there is this network inside the European Parliament trying to overrule people like myself who put forward the arguments of international law and of human rights, and also even the security aspect. I, myself, I went to Morocco. I went to Tindouf, to the refugee camps of Sahrawis. I went to Laayoune in a mission of the European Parliament. And I could sense the extreme security risks that Europe, in particular, but, as well, of course, Africa and the world is facing by not helping this question of Western Sahara be settled as it was settled in the case of Timor-Leste, with the rights of the people to determine what they want for the future to be properly asserted through a referendum, as it was done in Timor-Leste. It’s been — Morocco all these years was obstructing the referendum. And I was particularly struck with this security angle, because, of course, you can imagine that such a dispute and the generations of Sahrawis born in exile, in Tindouf, in [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 15 seconds.

ANA GOMES: Yeah. You know, the dangers are tremendous that this will be hijacked by some terrorist groups. And so, one more reason why Europe shouldn’t continue with this neglect for a conflict that needs to be sorted out according to the U.N. rule and international law and, of course, human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Ana Gomes, retired Portuguese diplomat, former Portuguese ambassador to Indonesia, and former member of the European Parliament, and Francesco Bastagli, former U.N. special representative in Western Sahara.

That does it for our show. Go to democracynow.org for our documentaries on East Timor and Western Sahara. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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