Bold-faced names are jumping ship from 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 European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and former MEP Cecilia Wikström are all listed as members of an “Honorary Board” of Fight Impunity. So is MEP Isabel Santos.
They’ve all quit the board in the wake of allegations against the founder of Fight Impunity, Pier Antonio Panzeri.
Panzeri, an ex-MEP from the Socialists and Democrats group, was arrested on Friday in connection with accusations of bribes and undue influence from Qatar — charges Doha denies. European Parliament assistants who have worked for the organization have also been arrested and had their offices sealed by police.
Starting an NGO in Brussels is relatively easy. Gaining credibility is much harder. When connections are currency, it helps to show who you know.
Panzeri, a former chairman of the Parliament’s human rights subcommittee, knew some powerful people — and he apparently leveraged them to create the impression of an exclusive club.
He knew Mogherini, for example, through his membership in the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Then Panzeri, who left Parliament in 2019, tapped her to join the board of Fight Impunity, according to an aide at the College of Europe, where Mogherini is now rector. The aide noted that she was invited to join the board along with Avramopoulos and Emma Bonino, a respected elder of the Italian left and former foreign minister.
Mogherini agreed to give opening remarks in March at a presentation that students organized with the NGO, but otherwise Mogherini has had no involvement with the organization, the aide said. Mogherini left the board as of Saturday, the aide added.
Avramopoulos said that he, Cazeneuve and Wikström also bolted from 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 had been invited to join “along with other personalities.”
Avramopoulos said he received permission from the European Commission to take up the position, and received a declared honorarium between February 2021 and February 2022. After that, the honorarium stopped “as I had zero involvement with Fight Impunity,” Avramopoulos said.
Both Avramopoulos and the Mogherini aide said the subject of Qatar never came up in the context of Fight Impunity.
Isabel Santos, a sitting S&D MEP from Portugal, said 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 involving the President of the Association,” she said in an email, referring to Panzeri.
Bonino’s membership on the Fight Impunity board isn’t likely to be her biggest headache. A former MEP and decorated human rights activist, she is the founder of No Peace Without Justice.
According to Italian newswire Ansa, the director general of that NGO, Niccolò Figà-Talamanca has also been detained in the corruption probe. Focused on international criminal justice, human rights and promoting 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 through No Peace Without Justice on Saturday.
Eddy Wax contributed reporting.