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Qatargate probe turns the heat on Rabat

Belgium's judicial investigation into the bribery of European politicians is going beyond Qatar to include Morocco

It is the biggest probe into corruption in the European Union for over two decades and centres on claims that Qatar and Morocco bought influence in the European parliament. In the past month, Belgian police have raided over 20 houses and offices, seizing phones and computers and over €1.5 million (US$1.62m) in cash.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, an Italian and former MP in the European parliament, says that Morocco offered financial inducements to MEPs in return for political support on EU-Morocco relations and the status of Western Sahara. Earlier, Panzeri struck a 'repentance agreement' with the Belgian authorities that offers the promise of reduced jail-time in return for providing detail on the scheme which has seen a handful of MEPs and officials arrested on charges of receiving cash for political support.

Panzeri has confessed to having 'actively participated in acts of corruption in connection with Qatar and in connection with Morocco and therefore to having been corrupted and to having corrupted others,' his lawyer, Laurent Kennes, told reporters on 18 January.

It looks certain to complicate Morocco's already difficult relations with the EU on trade and migration controls. The revelations emerging from the probe are likely to encourage MEPs to toughen their stance towards Rabat.

A resolution on press freedom and human rights in Morocco adopted by MEPs with a big majority on 19 January urges the Moroccan authorities to respect freedom of expression and media freedom and ensure fair trials for imprisoned journalists, such as Omar Radi, Souleimen Raissouni and Taoufik Bouachrine.

Rabat has reacted angrily with foreign ministry officials accusing MEPs of 'biased stances' as 'part of the campaign of attacks and harassment carried out against the Kingdom, by those who are disturbed by Morocco's development'. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita has accused the Parliament of 'judicial harassment' for linking Rabat to the corruption scandal.

There are widespread claims that Morocco has used the parastatal phosphate firm Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP) to fund all-expenses paid trips and inducements to MEPs. The Moroccan government and OCP have denied any wrongdoing.

A parliamentary delegation from Morocco was in Strasbourg ahead of the debate and vote last week but had little traction with MEPs, we hear.

The fallout from the scandal is likely to tighten the rules on lobbying the EU institutions. So-called 'friendship' groups, the European Parliament's equivalent of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups that operate in Westminister, would be banned under internal reforms proposed by the Parliament's President Roberta Metsola. That order would include an EU-Morocco group.

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