Tracking money from Rabat: EU corruption inquiry widens as focus moves to Morocco’s role

A man walks near the entrance of the European Parliament in Brussels on December 9, 2022. A European Parliament vice president, Greek socialist MEP Eva Kaili, was charged with corruption and remanded in custody on December 11, 2022 after Belgian investigators found "bags of cash" in her home. - Belgium on December 9, 2022 detained four people including a former MEP as part of a probe into suspected corruption by "a Gulf country" at the EU parliament, the prosecutor's office said. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The beginning of 2024 has seen a fresh impetus by the European Parliament and Belgian authorities to bring light upon one of the biggest corruption scandals of the past few years, involving lawmakers, lobbyists, bribes, spooks, and transcontinental links. Still, there are many aspects hidden from the public, especially regarding the role of Moroccan diplomats and spies.

The investigation began in December 2022 when Greek MEP Eva Kaili was arrested along with three others on suspicion of corruption and money laundering. The police have seized €1.5m in cash during raids across Belgium, Italy, and France. The other persons involved at the time were MEPs Marc Tarabella and Andrea Cozzolino, while former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri was the mastermind.

After procedures seem to have stalled in the second half of 2023, on February 6, 2024, the European Parliament stripped Eva Kaili of her immunity, though in a separate case. Also, on February 9, Belgian police widened their investigation to include Belgian MEP Maria Arena.

Moroccan bribes

The whole case began in 2022 after Belgium was tipped off by “a trusted European intelligence service” that two Italian members of the European Parliament had been bribed by Moroccan spies to “promote the Kingdom’s interests” in the EP, according to the first Belgian secret services report of the investigation. Thus, Politico notes in a sarcastic way that the so-called Qatargate scandal rocking the EU might have carried a very different name if there hadn’t been a World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

After the first suspects were put in custody, Belgian authorities issued a notification for the arrest of Abderrahim Atmoun, Morocco’s ambassador to Poland. Atmoun, according to the request for a European arrest warrant, received funds from Moroccan authorities to bribe members of the European Parliament “in order either to prevent the vote on resolutions which would be against Moroccan interests or to pass resolutions which would be in favor of Morocco and would thus contribute to improving the image of this country.”

The investigative judge in the case also asked French authorities to seize Atmoun’s assets in France, where he owns a hotel and an apartment. By then, Atmoun, who is also a French citizen, was gone, presumably back in Morocco and out of reach of European Union authorities, according to a Belgian secret services report.

Atmoun-Panzzeri partnership

According to a declassified report by the Belgian secret services, the cash-for-influence scandal began with a partnership between Abderrahim Atmoun and Pier Antonio Panzeri - then a member of the EP and chair of its Subcommittee on Human Rights.

Before turning his attention to Brussels, Atmoun - who studied in France and speaks French, Arabic, English, and Italian - had enjoyed a successful career in Paris. As chair of a friendship group between Morocco and the French Senate, the Moroccan diplomat rubbed elbows with the French elite and, in 2011, earned the Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest decorations, from then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The European Parliament was growing in importance at that time, as new powers under the Lisbon Treaty had given it a significant say over legislation and the composition of the European Commission. Rabat sought out alternative channels to engage with the chamber.

“Morocco’s diplomacy was essentially focused on the French lawmakers, but we couldn’t reach the EU Parliament through them,” said a lobbyist who worked with Atmoun. For the enterprising Moroccan diplomat, Panzeri was the way in.

Rabat had identified the Italian MEP as someone who could either be a “weighty ally” or a “formidable adversary,” according to a 2011 Moroccan diplomatic cable in a 2014 hack of government documents authenticated by French media. It wasn’t long before Atmoun and Panzeri were working together as co-chairs of the Morocco-EU joint parliamentary committee, a gathering of lawmakers from the two sides of the Mediterranean.

The leaked cables praise “remarkable behind-the-scenes work … undertaken by Co-Presidents Panzeri and Atmoun to rally the maximum number of MEP members of the Intergroup, and more particularly the Italians” on a wide range of issues that were important to Rabat.

Confessing to investigators after his arrest, Panzeri detailed how Atmoun offered him financial help for his 2014 electoral campaign. The diplomat covered the cost, more than €50,000, of a party in Milan seeking the votes of the Moroccan diaspora. Panzeri and his family received invitations to visit Marrakech, where they were put up in a five-star hotel.

Royal endorsement

It was on a visit to Morocco in August 2014 that the relationship between Atmoun and Panzeri received a royal endorsement, as King Mohammed VI awarded both men the Order of the Throne.

Atmoun’s alleged corruption of the European Parliament took place as Morocco was intensifying its efforts to push its priorities with the EU. The most important among these, according to a report by the Belgian secret services, was an agreement on fishing rights off the Moroccan coast, deflecting criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record and the status of Western Sahara, a disputed territory south of the country where Rabat has waged a decades-long fight against an armed independence movement led by the Polisario Front.

2016 Mohammed VI declared Western Sahara his “top priority” in foreign policy. An abrupt change followed the king’s speech in Moroccan diplomacy, said Aboubakr Jamaï, an exiled Moroccan journalist who is now dean at the business and international relations school of the Institute for American Universities. The country’s diplomats suffered “a sort of hubris,” Jamaï added, and the country’s secret services “started doing things they did not allow themselves to do before.”

A Brussels-based lobbyist who has worked for Morocco said that while Rabat was not among the biggest spenders when it came to influencing local officials, Morocco was “one of the most aggressive” countries they had seen.

Moroccan spy service comes in

Morocco’s diplomatic doubling down translated into Atmoun taking his relationship with Panzeri and the European Parliament to the next level.

In 2019, according to the report by the Belgian secret services, Atmoun brokered “a financial deal” between his Italian friend and the Moroccan spy service, known as the DGED. In his confession to investigators, Panzeri said this amounted to him and his assistant Francesco Giorgi (Kaili’s partner) receiving €50,000 a year each in exchange for lobbying for the kingdom’s interests. In Giorgi’s confessions, he confirmed receiving money from Morocco.

Between 2019 and 2022, Atmoun took part in at least three meetings in Rabat with Panzeri and Mohamed Yassine Mansouri, the head of the DGED, according to the Belgian secret services report. He was also present when Cozzolino met with the DGED in Warsaw.

Atmoun, who had just been promoted to the role of ambassador to Poland, was still very much involved in EU politics, traveling to Brussels or meeting with MEPs, according to public records and the secret services report.

“Atmoun, being an extrovert, wanted to know the largest number of people possible,” Panzeri told investigators. “And certainly, those who could be useful for the Moroccan cause.”

Until December 2022, when news of the Belgian investigation broke, Atmoun seemed to be delivering on his efforts. The Moroccan diplomat continued his relationship with Panzeri even after the Italian politician had left the European Parliament in 2019 and founded an NGO called Fight Impunity.

According to Belgian police reports seen by Politico, Panzeri was instrumental in influencing votes against two Moroccan activists shortlisted for the European parliament’s prestigious Sakharov human rights award. Belgian media Le Soir also reported that Giorgi said he and his boss billed operations to Atmoun, which included passing a resolution targeting Algeria and ensuring that mentions of Morocco disappeared from a Parliament report on human rights violations. Morocco’s foreign affairs minister has denied the country’s involvement in the corruption scandal.

While Belgian police failed to arrest Atmoun, nobody in Europe seems to be going after his employers in the Moroccan government and secret services. Despite allegations by Belgian investigators that the Moroccan state masterminded a multi-year corruption operation aimed at the heart of European Union democracy, no European leader has officially condemned Rabat.