Don’t call it Qatargate.
Morocco’s been here for years.
By ELISA BRAUN
and BARBARA MOENS
CGI illustrations by Dan Couto for POLITICO
If there hadn’t been a World Cup going on, the corruption scandal rocking the European Union might have carried a very different name.
The probe that would become Qatargate began after Belgium was tipped off by “a trusted European intelligence service” that two Italian members of the European Parliament had been bribed by Moroccan spies to “promote the Kingdom’s interests” in the chamber, according to the first Belgian secret services report of the investigation, obtained by POLITICO.
Indeed, it wasn’t long after the first suspects were in custody that Belgian authorities issued a notification for the arrest for Abderrahim Atmoun, Morocco’s ambassador to Poland, drawing up paperwork for international notifications for his arrest.
Atmoun, according to the request for a European arrest warrant seen by POLITICO, received funds from Moroccan authorities to bribe members of European Parliament “in order either to prevent the vote on resolutions which would be against Moroccan interests, or to pass resolutions which would be in favor of Morocco and would thus contribute to improving the image of this country.”
The investigative judge in the case also asked French authorities to seize Atmoun’s assets in France, where he owns a hotel and an apartment. By then Atmoun, who is also a French citizen, was gone, presumably back in Morocco and out of reach of European Union authorities, according to a Belgian secret services report.
But while Belgian authorities may have taken a stab at nabbing Atmoun, nobody in Europe seems to be going after his employers in the Moroccan government and secret services.
Despite allegations by Belgian investigators that the Moroccan state masterminded a multi-year corruption operation aimed at the heart of European Union democracy, no European leader has officially condemned Rabat. Diplomatic relations between Morocco and the EU may have deteriorated — but cooperation carries on in many areas, including migration and the fight against terrorism.
When a major earthquake struck in September, the European Commission quickly pledged €1 million in aid. In October, Spain, Portugal and Morocco together agreed to host the 2030 World Cup.
That same month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hosted Morocco’s head of government, Aziz Akhannouch, at her Berlaymont headquarters. The two discussed ways to strengthen the EU-Morocco relationship, and the situation in the Middle East after the October 7 attacks on Israel.
A Commission spokesperson declined to comment on whether Rabat’s alleged corruption of European democracy came up in these talks.
The cash-for-influence scandal began, according to a declassified report by the Belgian secret services, with a partnership between Atmoun, Pier Antonio Panzeri — then a member of the European Parliament and chair of its Subcommittee on Human Rights — and Andrea Cozzolino, another MEP.
(Panzeri struck a plea deal with investigators acknowledging he participated in acts of corruption with Morocco. Cozzolino’s lawyer declined to comment.)
Before turning his attention to Brussels, Atmoun — who studied in France and speaks French, Arabic, English and Italian, according to the request for his arrest — had enjoyed a successful career in Paris. As chair of a friendship group between Morocco and the French Senate, the Moroccan diplomat hobnobbed under golden ceilings with the crème of the French elite — in 2011 earning the légion d’honneur or Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest decorations, from then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Atmoun was ambitious. His eyes were set on a prestigious posting for example as ambassador to Rome or Paris, according to two people who have known him for a decade, granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation.
The European Parliament was growing in importance; new powers under the Lisbon Treaty had given it an important say over legislation and the composition of the European Commission. But Rabat sought out alternative channels to engage with the chamber.
“Morocco’s diplomacy was essentially focused on the French lawmakers, but we couldn’t reach the EU Parliament through them,” said a lobbyist who worked with Atmoun at the time, likewise granted anonymity as others quoted here. For the enterprising Moroccan diplomat, Panzeri was the way in.
Rabat had identified the Italian MEP as someone who could either be a “weighty ally” or a “formidable adversary,” according to a 2011 Moroccan diplomatic cable included in a 2014 hack of government documents authenticated by French media. It wasn’t long before Atmoun and Panzeri were working together as co-chairs of the Morocco-EU joint parliamentary committee, a gathering of lawmakers from the two sides of the Mediterranean.
The leaked cables praise “remarkable behind-the-scenes work … undertaken by Co-Presidents Panzeri and Atmoun to rally the maximum number of MEP members of the Intergroup, and more particularly the Italians” on a wide range of issues that were important to Rabat.
There was little question however over who was the courter and who was the courted.
Confessing to investigators after his arrest, Panzeri detailed how Atmoun offered him financial help for his 2014 electoral campaign. The diplomat covered the cost, more than €50,000, of a party in Milan seeking the votes of the Moroccan diaspora. Panzeri and his family received invitations to visit Marrakech, where they were sometimes put up in the five-star La Mamounia hotel.
It was on a visit to Morocco, in August 2014, that the relationship between Atmoun and Panzeri received a royal endorsement. King Mohammed VI, protected from the simmering heat by a large burgundy umbrella, awarded both men the Order of the Throne, a state decoration given as a reward for services to the kingdom.
Like the king and most attendees, Atmoun wore a traditional robe made of white cloth, which is often associated with purity in the Islamic tradition. Panzeri received the award in a dark, loose-fitting suit.
Morocco’s embassy in Brussels declined to comment for the story. Atmoun did not reply to efforts to contact him. Morocco’s foreign affairs minister has denied the country’s involvement in the Qatargate scandal. Qatar has rejected allegations it interfered in European Union democracy.
Fish, territory and human rights
Atmoun’s alleged corruption of the European Parliament took place as Morocco was intensifying its efforts to push its priorities with the EU.
The most important among these, according to a report by the Belgian secret services, were an agreement on fishing rights off the Moroccan coast, deflecting criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record and the status of Western Sahara, a disputed territory south of the country where Rabat has waged a decades-long fight against an armed independence movement led by the Polisario Front.
In 2016, Mohammed VI declared Western Sahara his “top priority” when it comes to foreign policy.
The king’s speech was followed by an abrupt change in Moroccan diplomacy, said Aboubakr Jamaï, an exiled Moroccan journalist who is now dean at the business and international relations school of the Institute for American Universities. The country’s diplomats suffered “a sort of hubris,” Jamaï added, and the country’s secret services “started doing things they did not allow themselves to do before.”
A Brussels-based lobbyist who has worked for Morocco said that while Rabat was not among the biggest spenders when it came to influencing local officials, Morocco was “one of the most aggressive” countries they had seen.
In the context of Qatargate, Morocco’s diplomatic doubling down translated into Atmoun taking his relationship with Panzeri, and the European Parliament, to the next level.
In 2019, according to the report by the Belgian secret services, Atmoun brokered “a financial deal” between his Italian friend and the Moroccan spy service, known as the DGED. In his confession to investigators, which has been seen by POLITICO, Panzeri said this amounted to he and his assistant Francesco Giorgi each receiving €50,000 a year in exchange for their lobbying for the kingdom’s interests. In Giorgi’s confessions, also seen by POLITICO, he confirmed receiving money from Morocco.
Between 2019 and 2022, Atmoun took part in at least three meetings in Rabat with Panzeri and Mohamed Yassine Mansouri, the head of the DGED, according to the Belgian secret services report. He was also present when Cozzolino, another Italian MEP accused of corruption who declined to comment for this story, met with the DGED in Warsaw.
Atmoun, who had just been promoted to the role of ambassador to Poland, was still very much involved in EU politics, traveling to Brussels or meeting with MEPs, according to public records and the secret services report.
“Atmoun, being an extroverted person, wanted to know the largest number of people possible,” Panzeri told investigators. “And certainly, those who could be useful for the Moroccan cause.”
Until December 2022, when news of the Belgian investigation broke, Atmoun seemed to be delivering on his efforts.
The Moroccan diplomat continued his relationship with Panzeri even after the Italian politician had left the European Parliament in 2019 and founded an NGO called Fight Impunity.
On wiretaps recorded by the Belgian police, Atmoun and Panzeri can be heard talking about women or mocking Giorgi and Cozzolino, the other MEP allegedly enlisted by Morocco, according to transcripts of the recording included in a police report. On one recording, they plan a family holiday together like old friends, before Panzeri asks for more: another ticket bought by Morocco, nights at a hotel for his son-in-law. Behind Atmoun’s back, Panzeri and Giorgi call Atmoun “il terrone,” a derogatory Italian term meaning somebody of Southern or peasant origins.
Panzeri also helped Atmoun ingratiate himself with other members of the European Parliament who had authority over files in which Rabat was interested. Cozzolino was part of the committee investigating Morocco’s use of spyware and was chair of the Parliament’s Maghreb delegation.
Maria Arena, the head of the subcommittee on human rights, would often come up in Panzeri’s conversation with Atmoun. On at least one occasion, she joined them for dinner. According to a transcript of a January 2022 conversation by the Belgian secret services, Atmoun invited her and Panzeri for a “work” trip in Marrakech or Essaouira. Arena told the diplomat her son also planned to go to Morocco. Atmoun said that when her son arrived in the country he should reach out to “uncle Atmoun.” Later that year, Arena’s son Ugo Lemaire made a trip that was paid for by a company in Casablanca, the police documents show.
Police have raided Arena’s house and her son’s as part of the Qatargate investigation although she has not been charged or formally questioned. Her lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Her son’s lawyer declined to comment.
According to Belgian police reports seen by POLITICO, Panzeri was instrumental in influencing votes against two Moroccan activists shortlisted for the European parliament’s prestigious Sakharov human rights award. Belgian media Le Soir also reported that Panzeri’s assistant Giorgi said he and his boss billed operations to Atmoun that included passing a resolution targeting Algeria and ensuring that mentions of Morocco disappeared from a Parliament report on human rights violations.
It’s unlikely that Moroccan officials today see Atmoun’s efforts as a success. Fallout from the Qatargate scandal has rolled back most, if not all, of his efforts.
In January 2023, just over a month after Panzeri was arrested along with other suspects in the case, the European Parliament voted to condemn Morocco’s human rights record for the first time in 25 years. “MEPs are deeply concerned about allegations that the Moroccan authorities have corrupted Members of the European Parliament,” the chamber added in a statement.
In response, Moroccan lawmakers decried the Parliament’s motion as “an unacceptable attack against the sovereignty, dignity and independence of judicial institutions in the kingdom,” and voted to review ties with the European Parliament.
The diplomatic dispute is straining a relationship in which each side is dependent on the other. The EU is Morocco’s largest trade partner. Rabat is also a major recipient of European aid. For Europe, Morocco is an important intelligence partner in the fight against Islamist terrorism. Some 2 million members of the Moroccan diaspora live in Europe, cultivating cultural and economic ties between the two regions.
Like other North African countries, Morocco has sometimes leveraged migration during political disputes. In 2021, for example, it allowed 8,000 migrants to cross into Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta in 2021 in retaliation for Madrid’s decision to allow a Polisario Front leader to seek medical care in the country. Since Qatargate, Belgium has found it increasingly difficult to send migrants to Morocco when their asylum claims are unsuccessful, Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told POLITICO in May.
A test of what will prevail — outrage over Qatargate or the EU’s determination to continue on as if nothing had happened — is likely to take place later this year, when the EU’s highest court is expected to issue a verdict on a case brought by the Polisario Front.
CGI illustrations by Dan Couto for POLITICO
The European Court of Justice is considering an appeal by the Commission against a ruling that struck down a 2019 fisheries deal between Morocco and the EU on the grounds that Brussels hadn’t secured the consent of the Western Saharan people, as represented by the Polisario Front.
Before news of the scandal broke, Rabat had friends in Brussels it could have counted on to make the case for its interests. The question now is whether Morocco still has anybody left to defend it.
Meanwhile, Atmoun is believed to be in Morocco. After news of the corruption scandal broke, he “passed a lot of time in his residence,” according to a declassified report by the Belgian secret services. He had planned to spend the New Year holidays in Morocco but left early after news of the corruption scandal broke in early December last year. He kept the date of his flight a secret, attributing the haste, the report adds, to his mother’s poor health.