A year ago, Eva Kaili was one of the rising stars of European politics.
Then, her career collapsed spectacularly after police found large sums of money in her flat.
The Greek politician was arrested and charged with being part of an international corruption conspiracy in which her partner is also implicated.
Kaili, who denies all charges, was held in prison for four months with limited access to her young daughter.
Her career, it seemed, was over.
But now, there is a chance the case against her might collapse. She hasn’t been formally charged and has returned to work as an MEP, albeit as an independent. She has also launched a legal challenge to clear her name.
“According to my Belgian lawyers, I was used as a trophy,” she says.
As one of the European Parliament’s small group of vice presidents, her remit included technology, artificial intelligence and business foresight. But she was brought down by that most old-fashioned of things – a bag of cash.
The morning her life started unravelling is etched into her memory.
A text from a friend said something had happened to her partner, Francesco Giorgi, and the police were involved.
Kaili panicked, she says, thinking he had been in a car accident. There was no answer from his phone.
‘It was a bag I didn’t recognise’
Then another message arrived – Giorgi had been arrested in an investigation linked to his boss, the former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, who was now a well-paid lobbyist. That was when she went into Giorgi’s office and discovered a suitcase full of cash.
“It’s his private space. I was looking for something to understand why he was arrested,” she says. ” I discovered a bag of money. It was a bag I didn’t recognise. I understood it to be Panzeri’s, so I wanted to return it.”
Kaili claims she called the police and when she couldn’t get through to anyone, decided the best course of action was to get the money out of her flat.
“I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want to know what it was.”
Her father Alexandros was visiting and it was decided he would take the money to his hotel which was a short walk from the parliament. The plan, she says, was for Panzeri to pick it up from there. Instead, her father was detained at the hotel and Kaili was arrested.
Kaili claims wiretaps prove money wasn’t hers
The charges against her centred on an alleged cash-for-access scheme in which foreign nations, notably Qatar and Morocco, paid to gain influence at the European Parliament. The interests they sought to advance included softening EU criticism of Qatar’s record on human rights ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and winning support for the country’s aspiration for a visa-free travel deal with Europe. This led to the scandal being nicknamed Qatargate.
Kaili maintains her innocence. She says she had no prior knowledge of the money, that she guessed it was Panzeri’s because of his link to her partner, and simply wanted to get it back to him. After her arrest, the European media went into a frenzy over the case – portraying Kaili as the prosecutor’s big prize in their bid to bust a corruption ring which brought in millions of euros.
In person, Kaili, a former Greek TV presenter, flits between being confident and nervous. She is clearly consumed with the quest to get the case against her dropped. She follows coverage of her case intimately, knows the allegations and has files of documents.
“Was any of the money in that bag your money?” I asked her.
“No. Just Panzeri’s. There are wiretaps that prove this.”
This, she says, is evidence from the secret service seen by her legal team which we cannot verify.
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‘They want to bury the case’
In prison, she claims she was intimidated and warned that, if she didn’t make a confession, her toddler would be taken away from her.
“They threatened to give my daughter to the social services. I couldn’t see her for a month. She was 20 months old. She had been constantly with me and suddenly she wasn’t.
“I was shocked these things could happen in Europe.”
The Belgian federal prosecutor told Sky News there was “no evidence of such a practice” and that such behaviour would be “unacceptable in a state governed by the rule of law”.
Her defence hinges on her claims that her right to parliamentary immunity was ignored, that she was spied on and that the prosecutor knows she is innocent but is prolonging the pain to avoid embarrassment.
“They want to bury the case until after the European elections and after the Belgian elections,” she says, both of which are due to be held in June 2024.
In a statement, the federal prosecutor denied that claim, saying the timescale was decided by the magistrate. They also said that efforts made by Kaili’s team to review the investigation could “extend the duration of the proceedings until a date that is likely to be after the election”.
Sven Mary, one of her lawyers, told me, with a sliver of knowing hyperbole, that he would compare this to a Belgian form of Watergate. “It’s about the intrusion of the institution,” he said. “We could not believe these things can still happen in 2022 or 2023.
“Clearly something [criminal] happened but the secret services made a file in which a lot of names were mentioned, but not Eva Kaili. And then several months later, her name suddenly appears.”
Nobody questions that at the heart of this something stinks. Panzeri confessed almost immediately – and in January, signed a deal in which he agreed to give evidence in return for a reduced sentence. He then named Kaili’s partner, Giorgi, as a trusted assistant, and later named Kaili herself.
‘Her career is over’
Few people want to talk about the case publicly. Juri Laas, a spokesperson for the European Parliament, is careful with his words.
“The European Parliament has done everything in its power to assist in investigations,” he said.
I spoke to one well-placed official who doesn’t want to go on the record, but knows the case well. “I don’t know if she’s guilty or not, but from a political perspective it may not matter – her career is over.”
The prosecutor was keen to avoid any further speculation.
“The whole case will be heard in open court when it is presented to the trial judge, who will assess the arguments of the parties on the basis of the evidence gathered,” they said.
This is a complex, often bewildering story that began with a bang – politicians arrested, money seized, shockwaves running through the Brussels establishment. Now, it has faded into the political background and it is unclear if any formal charges will be brought against her, or if a trial will ever happen.
Innocent or guilty, for now Eva Kaili will continue to live in limbo.