Bold names leave the board of an NGO at the center of an alleged corruption scandal in the European Parliament.
Former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, former French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, former EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and former MEP Cecilia Wikström are all listed as members of a “ honorary council” of Fight Impunity. Just like MEP Isabel Santos.
They all quit the board following allegations against Fight Impunity founder Pier Antonio Panzeri.
Panzeri, a former MEP from the Socialists and Democrats group, was arrested on Friday on charges of bribery and undue influence by Qatar – charges Doha denies. European Parliament assistants who worked for the organization were also arrested and their offices sealed off by the police.
Creating an NGO in Brussels is relatively simple. Gaining credibility is much more difficult. When connections are commonplace, it helps show who you know.
Panzeri, a former chairman of parliament’s human rights subcommittee, knew powerful people – and he apparently used them to create the impression of an exclusive club.
He knew Mogherini, for example, through his membership of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Then Panzeri, who left parliament in 2019, approached her to join the board of Fight Impunity, according to an assistant at the College of Europe, where Mogherini is now rector. The aide noted that she had been invited to join the board along with Avramopoulos and Emma Bonino, a respected former Italian leftist and former foreign minister.
Mogherini agreed to give a keynote speech in March at [[the presentation of a report students organized]] a presentation organized by the students with the NGO, but otherwise Mogherini had no involvement with the organization, the aide said. Mogherini quit the board on Saturday, the aide added.
Avramopoulos said he, Cazeneuve and Wikström also quit the board as soon as they heard about the allegations.
The honorary board had “no executive or managerial role,” Avramopoulos said in an email Sunday. He also noted that he was asked to join “along with other personalities”.
Avramopoulos said he received clearance from the European Commission to hold the position and received a reported fee between February 2021 and February 2022. After that, the fee ceased “because I had no involvement in Fight Impunity”, Avramopoulos said.
Avramopoulos and Mogherini’s assistant said the subject of Qatar had never been discussed in the context of Fight Impunity.
Isabel Santos, the incumbent S&D MEP from Portugal, said on Sunday that she had already written to Fight Impunity asking to be removed from the board.
“I am shocked and surprised by the latest news regarding the president of the association,” she said in an email, referring to Panzeri.
Bonino’s membership on the Fight Impunity board of directors will probably not be his biggest headache. A former MEP and decorated human rights activist, she is the founder of No Peace Without Justice.
According to the Italian news wire Ansa, the director general of this NGO, Niccolò Figà-Talamanca, was also arrested as part of the investigation into corruption. Focused on international criminal justice, human rights and the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, the organization is officially based in New York and Rome. It has the same Brussels address as Fight Impunity, at 41 rue Ducale.
Neither Bonino nor Figà-Talamanca responded to messages sent by No Peace Without Justice on Saturday.
Eddy Wax contributed reporting.