The European Parliament has stripped a Greek MEP of her role as vice-president over allegations that Qatar bribed her to influence decision-making.
Eva Kaili, 44, one of its 14 vice-presidents, was among four people arrested and charged by investigators in Belgium over the bribery and corruption scandal.
They are accused of receiving money and gifts from Qatar, allegations that Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, described as of the “utmost concern”.
Belgian police searched 19 homes and parliamentary offices in raids from Friday to Monday as part of their investigation and seized computers, mobile phones and cash, some of which was found in a suitcase in a hotel room.
Prosecutors said they had suspected for months that a Gulf state was trying to influence decision-making in Brussels.
They did not name the suspects, but Ms Kaili’s name was leaked to the media.
Ms Kaili, who denies the charges, was suspended from her duties in light of the investigation at the weekend, and the Greek socialist PASOK party announced it was expelling her from its ranks.
A source with knowledge of the case told Reuters news agency the state was Qatar.
Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.
In all 625 MEPs voted in favour of stripping Ms Kaili of her title, with only one against and two abstaining.
“The integrity of [the European Parliament] comes first and foremost,” Roberta Metsola, its president, tweeted.
Visits to Qatar
Ms Kaili’s lawyer, Michalis Dimitrakopoulos, has said his client is innocent and that visits she made to Qatar were in her capacity as vice-president of the European Parliament.
“There is uncontested evidence, from which it is proven that every move, contact and statement made by Eva Kaili regarding Qatar was made in execution and application of the official policy of the European Union, planned in the highest level and always after consultation and permission from the leadership of the European Parliament,” he said.
“In every visit to Qatar, Eva Kaili was accompanied in every step by the European official Roberto Bendini.”
In a speech in the European Parliament on 21 November as the World Cup was starting in Qatar, Ms Kaili described the country “as a frontrunner in labour rights”.
Scandal risks damaging EU’s image
The vote to sack Eva Kaili was a very rare sign of (near) unity in the European Parliament.
It marks the latest stage in a quite stunning fall from grace.
A week ago, Kaili was seen as a dynamic figure with a particular interest in digital technology; a former TV news presenter who had been elevated to being a vice-president of the parliament.
Now she is in detention, linked to corruption and her career is in ruins. And all the smoke signals point to a direct link between Kaili and Qatar.
She recently told the parliament that Qatar was a “front-runner in labour rights”, despite the deaths of migrant workers building football stadia, and berated colleagues for bullying the country and showing discrimination.
Instead, the criticism of Qatar is now about to increase.
Later today, the European Parliament will hold a debate on the suspicions of corruption “from Qatar”” (note that wording: “from Qatar” rather than “in Qatar” – this is about Qatari influence outside the country) as well as the need for more transparency in European institutions.
And that’s where the parliament will have to look at itself – it’s long been accused of being too opaque in its regulations, with many MEPs having second jobs and lobbying firms floating around like dust in the air.
The question of where lobbying ends and corruption begins is an old one – but now might be the time when the parliament starts to take it much more seriously.
“They committed to a vision by choice and they opened to the world,” she said.
“Still, some here are calling to discriminate them. They bully them and they accuse everyone that talks to them or engages [with them] of corruption.”
Human rights groups say migrant workers who built stadiums for the World Cup have faced gruelling working conditions for little pay.
There have been reports of migrant workers dying during the 12 years of preparation for the tournament, with numbers ranging from a few dozen to several thousand.