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Corruption is no longer a tenable dividing line between East and West

The arrest of MEP Eva Kaili over Qatar-linked bribery charges goes to show that kickbacks and shakedowns are just as brazenly entertained in Brussels as elsewhere in Europe.

January 30, 2023 - Saahil Menon - Articles and Commentary

500 Qatari Riyal banknotes. Photo: Mirza Kadic / Shutterstock

Ever since the EU enlargement in mid-2004, a palpable “them and us” culture has reigned supreme between the bloc’s founders and its newcomers to the East. Needless to say, the new members are “othered” to this very day as a result of historical injustices beyond their control. Transitioning from Marxism-Leninism to free-market economies in such a short span of time has given rise to unimaginable wealth disparity across Emerging Europe. Their societies are characterised by a coterie of overprivileged magnates who are close with the government, while the rest of the population contends with mediocre living standards and stifled earning potential.

The inability to land well-paid jobs and work one’s way up on merit is precisely why there has been such an acute brain drain from ex-Soviet republics and satellites alike. The main downside of this phenomenon is the extent to which western nations have been psychologically empowered by the influx of Emerging Europe’s best and brightest. Not only do these migratory trends bolster the superiority complex France, Germany and the Benelux boast over their worse off neighbours to the East, but they lend credence to just how pervasive graft and nepotism remain throughout the former Warsaw Pact. This stigma continues to plague the union’s most recent members and is used as a pretext to move the goalposts for candidate countries.

In a timely twist of fate, we now learn that the EU’s buttoned-up bureaucrats are not as squeaky clean as they make themselves out to be. Greek MEP Eva Kaili, also a European Parliament vice-president, was caught red-handed by Belgian authorities with bags of cash stashed away in her house, along with four other ex-officials also supposedly in on the scheme. It turns out that the “unidentified Gulf state” involved was indeed Qatar – a sheikhdom that is no stranger to blank cheque diplomacy and getting influential figures to do their bidding. Whether this was just a case of quid pro quo gone wrong is anyone’s guess. In many ways, FIFA was Qatar’s gateway drug to the upper echelons of the European Union.

Switzerland, where football’s governing body happens to be headquartered, is considered the gold standard insofar as upholding ethics and morals is concerned. The fact that the Qataris managed to sway FIFA’s vote in their favour for the World Cup hosting rights via backchannel wheeling and dealing may well have rendered senior EU politicians fair game in their eyes. The return on investment they were seeking this time around was for high-profile parliamentarians to sing their praises and polish their tarnished image over human rights violations. More importantly, however, Doha is hellbent on securing visa-free access for its citizens to the Schengen Zone. Passing such legislation would catapult their passport to the position of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s most powerful travel document, on par with their Emirati rivals.

Keeping the Gulf at arm’s length

It is no coincidence that Europe finds itself cosying up to the Gulf monarchies as energy insecurity reaches a tipping point. Qatar, in particular, is known for punching above its weight whenever the opportunity to do so arises. The tiny peninsula often resorts to soft power tools as a means of making its presence felt both regionally and globally. The biggest takeaway from this scandal is that corruption knows no boundaries. The East draws heavy flak for organised crime and misappropriating funds even though Mediterranean policymakers are just as receptive to side hustles which ultimately line their pockets. It is high time the same degree of scrutiny was applied across the board rather than being skewed towards a certain geography.

Besides Qatar, a visa waiver agreement was also in the offing with neighbouring Kuwait, where the death penalty is still in effect and religious pluralism is not recognised. Should a deal of this kind materialise, the European Union will have a lot to answer for. Preaching respect for human rights to the rest of the world while aligning itself with both authoritarian states is frankly the height of double standards. The Gulf’s notoriety for denying its inhabitants the most fundamental civil liberties is well known by now, not to mention anything of how abysmally women and minorities are treated. Forging closer alliances with malign actors whose values are totally incongruous with those of the West warrants far greater introspection, especially as western states attempt to shore up worldwide support for Ukraine in the name of defending democracy.

Europe’s outreach to the Gulf is a self-serving endeavour that will admittedly bear fruit in the form of affordable LNG. This short-term benefit, however, is more than offset by the loss of face wrought upon the establishment as further findings of “Qatargate” appear. The continent’s ruling elite will have an especially hard time convincing the public why Russia and China pose a threat to their way of life while these inherently repressive Middle Eastern regimes get a free pass. Palm-greasing controversies implicating a Muslim-majority third country serve as red meat for the bloc’s right-wing conservatives. The Visegrad Group is renowned for taking an overtly anti-Islamic stance when it comes to inbound migration. Accusations against its most prominent members, Hungary and Poland, concerning their failure to enforce the rule of law domestically have effectively been turned on their head in the past few days.

To truly come clean and absolve itself of any wrongdoings, the European Union needs to conduct a full-fledged investigation into the abolition of entry requirements for the UAE back in 2014. It is somewhat unjust that the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership (EaP) nations are appraised annually on how closely their governance models and policies dovetail with the EU, whereas other Annex II states are not subject to similar checks and balances. Their latest “Visa Suspension Report” warns the countries included against offering so-called “Golden Passports” and liberalising visa regulations. Meanwhile, the UAE is still harbouring countless high-profile Russians thanks to its Golden Visa residency scheme. Two Dubai-based companies have also been involved in facilitating the supply of Iranian-made UAVs to Russia, according to the US State Department.

Romania and Bulgaria short-changed

Consigning Bucharest and Sofia to half-baked membership was an ill-thought-out move on the part of Brussels. At a time when it is of the utmost importance that the European Union demonstrates solidarity and expands its geopolitical influence, the exact opposite has transpired courtesy of a few internal spoilers. On the one hand, keeping both Romania and Bulgaria out of Schengen could be down to their proximity to Turkey. The marked surge in irregular arrivals via South-eastern Europe and Asia Minor undoubtedly had something to do with these peripheral states receiving the cold-shoulder. That said, Croatia is now officially part of the free movement area in spite of sharing a 932 kilometre border with Bosnia and Herzegovina – a chokepoint for thousands of Afghan and Syrian migrants.

The agenda behind this regrettable decision centres on preserving the current status quo over and above any apprehensions of another refugee crisis in the making. It is no secret that Emerging Europe has fared much better than its western counterparts when it comes to safety, social harmony, the ease of doing business and fiscal attractiveness. In light of these shifting sands, the French and Germans will stop at nothing to cut these up-and-coming nations to the East back down to size. The Schengen vote is a classic case of divide-and-rule intended to stir up animosity between three nations on an equal footing with one another. Corruption only goes so far in credibly justifying why the Romanians and Bulgarians must now hold out a decade longer for admission, even though they had begun cleaning up their act prior to Zagreb.

Saahil Menon is an independent wealth advisor based in Dubai with an academic background in business, economics and finance.

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