New details have emerged revealing how Morocco manipulated European Parliamentary proceedings through a powerful former MEP and his parliamentary assistant, both of whom are alleged to have received bribes from both Morocco and Qatar.
According to De Standaard, Pier Antonio Panzeri (S&D), a three-term Italian MEP who served in the European Parliament from 2004-2019, repeatedly deflected and downplayed criticism of Morocco's human rights record throughout much of his time in office.
Panzeri was consistently helped in his efforts by his former assistant Francesco Giorgi, a current advisor to fellow Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino (S&D) and partner of Greek MEP Eva Kaili (S&D) — two politicians also heavily implicated in the corruption scandal which has convulsed European politics over the past month.
Reading between the lines
One story reported by De Standaard involved a meeting in 2018 between Panzeri and two Dutch human rights activists who were campaigning for the EU's prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights to be awarded to Nasser Zefzafi: a fellow activist and campaigner for the deprived Rif Mountains area in northern Morocco. Zafzafi had recently been sentenced to twenty years in prison by the Moroccan authorities.
The activists had arranged to meet Panzeri after being informed that, as Chair of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), the Italian MEP's approval was a prerequisite for achieving their goal.
"We heard that you had to meet with him to bring a nomination to the attention [of the European Parliament]," said Jamal Ayaou, one of the two activists.
Before they met Panzeri, however, both activists had a "preliminary interview" with Giorgi, who promptly asked them: "Might you not want to withdraw the nomination? That might be better for your business."
Giorgi then heavily suggested that, by nominating Zefzafi, the Moroccan authorities might crack down even more heavily on the Rif Mountains region.
Despite failing to receive Panzeri's approval for the nomination, the Dutch activists still managed to garner enough support from other MEPs to nominate Zefzafi. Shortly after Zefzafi was announced as one of the prize's three finalists, the activists received a call.
"We were just sitting in a Brussels seafood restaurant when an MEP called because Panzeri's assistant was looking for us," Ayaou said. "We had to come immediately. Panzeri wanted to talk to us."
Ayaou recounted how, as the two activists headed towards the European Parliament, they were intercepted by four unknown men: two Moroccans and two Italians.
"They said they came to get us for the appointment with Panzeri," Ayaou said. "Along the way, they asked which politicians we had spoken to." When they arrived at the European Parliament building, the unnamed men promptly dispersed.
"We were set up," explained Ayaou. "There turned out to be no agreement [for a meeting] at all. Those men had now heard us talking about our contacts. But it was the assistant of Panzeri [Giorgi] who had lured us there."
The 2018 Sakharov Prize ended up being awarded to Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov.
A broader pattern
Such events were allegedly part of a much broader pattern of behaviour by Panzeri. According to De Standaard, in his role as Chair of DROI, Panzeri would often draw attention to human rights abuses all around the world — including in Yemen, Chechnya, and Burundi — but would hardly, if ever, discuss human rights violations in Morocco.
According to Portuguese former MEP Ana Gomes, who was a member of the same centre-left (S&D) group as Panzeri, the Italian often used "smart tactics" in his efforts to deflect criticism away from Morocco.
"He never bragged about his good relations with Morocco, but rather tried to divert attention," Gomes said. Occasionally, Panzeri did specifically praise Morocco for its progress on human rights issues. In 2017, he claimed that the country had made "significant progress" on democratic reforms, while in 2018 he said that he was "very satisfied" with the country's human rights record.
The EU-Morocco Committee
In addition to his chairing the DROI, Panzeri also served as Chairman of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with the Maghreb countries (DMAG), as well as co-Chair of the EU-Morocco Joint Parliamentary Committee, alongside Moroccan politician Abderrahim Atmoun.
In a 2018 interview with a Moroccan newspaper, Atmoun explained how important the Joint Committee was to the Moroccan lobby in Brussels.
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"All negotiations between Morocco and the European Union end at the European Parliament's voting table," Atmoun explained. "That is the most difficult step in the process. That is why our continued presence in the European Parliament is essential for our goals to succeed.'
Through the Joint Committee, Atmoun claimed that Morocco had "thwarted" 147 parliamentary amendments contravening Moroccan interests over the previous year.
Last month, Panzeri was reported to have made a "partial confession" of his involvement in the corruption scandal, although it is not yet known what specific allegations the former MEP confessed to.