Friendship Groups with Ambiguous Roles Amidst Corruption in the European Parliament

The European Parliament is currently being rocked by a corruption scandal, and friendship groups are at the forefront of this controversy. Radio France’s investigative unit, in collaboration with Belgian newspaper “Le soir”, has probed into one such organization to shed light on the matter.European Parliament President Roberta Metsola receives the President of the State of Israel, Isaac Herzog, on January 26, 2023. (JOHN THYS / AFP)

One of the first concrete effects of Qatar-Moroccogate was the abolition of friendship groups within the European Parliament. Member of the European Parliament (socialist passed to La Republique en Marche) from 2009 to 2019, Gilles Pargneaux chaired the European Union-Morocco friendship group during his two terms of office. His name resurfaced in the press, on the sidelines of this corruption scandal. “He was not ashamed to present himself as personal adviser to His Majesty the King,” says former Portuguese MP Ana Gomes who rubbed shoulders with him in the socialist group.

“He was almost ambassador – without the title – of Morocco, and he was very proud of it”, confirms an elected French socialist. “I never presented myself as His Majesty’s adviser, replies Gilles Pargneaux, who explains himself publicly for the first time since the affair broke out. I have never seen His Majesty King Mohamed VI. I do not never met him personally.”

“I did not defend the interests of Morocco. I was the president of the European Union-Morocco friendship group… which was not a group of enmity.”

When we meet him in an opulent hotel in Lille, the man does not hide the personal link that unites him to Morocco: married to a Franco-Moroccan, he received in February 2013 the equivalent of the Moroccan Legion of Honor “ on the high instruction of His Majesty Mohammed VI”. “Morocco must have an increased presence” in the European Parliament, he explained at the time. Leaked Moroccan diplomatic documents indicate that the Moroccan authorities appreciated his action and his positions. “I am delighted, answers Gilles Pargneaux. This means that in the eyes of Moroccans we were doing a job of facilitator which seemed to them efficient. This role was also underlined by representatives of the European Union.”

“I got screwed”

In 2017, Gilles Pargneaux also took part in a debate in the European Parliament, in the presence of Kaoutar Fall, the general manager of a Moroccan lobbying agency expelled seven months later by the Belgian authorities who consider her “actively involved in information for the benefit of Morocco”. “I was fooled, in good faith, explains Gilles Pargneaux. She had asked me to sponsor her. I contacted the ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco to the European institutions. He told me that he did not there was no problem with her and that he himself would participate in her conference.”

In 2018, Gilles Pargneaux created the Euromeda Foundation, with the Moroccan Mohamed Cheikh Biadillah (elected to the House of Councilors in Morocco and president of the Morocco-European Union parliamentary friendship group) and the Frenchman Alain Berger from the lobbying firm Hill & Knowlton . “We were recognized as being of public utility by royal decree in August 2018 and simply organized two meetings that year in connection with the Moroccan think tank Policy center for the New South”, justifies Gilles Pargneaux.

“I made an administrative error by putting Euromeda’s head office at the same address as Hill & Knowlton, explains Alain Berger for his part. I changed it after three months. We said to ourselves that there was need for a foundation to improve the relationship between Africa and Europe with a particular Moroccan pivot.The purpose of this foundation was not to influence European policy, but to find aid projects in Africa with training programs, twinning, exchange of materials and the training of women imams.” For the NGO Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) based in Brussels, on the other hand, Euromeda would be similar to a lobbying structure in favor of Morocco.

“The concept was supported by a number of Moroccan personalities. But it was never encouraged by the Moroccan government.”

“It had nothing to do with the desire to be Morocco’s lobbyists”, also affirms Gilles Pargneaux, who specifies that “since 2019, the Foundation has been put on hold” for lack of financial partnerships.

At the end of 2018, the Foundation was splashed by the forced resignation of French MEP Patricia Lalonde, author of a report on the trade agreement between the EU and Morocco. She had been criticized for her work deemed biased in favor of Rabat, after traveling to Morocco and Western Sahara in September 2018 with two other MEPs.

The Moroccan police roadblock

“The program of this mission was quite dubious, testifies the Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala who was present on the spot. Morocco clearly wanted to show that the local population derived great benefits from trade agreements with the European Union. We were entitled to a totally unilateral presentation of things. There was absolutely no question in our program of meeting the independent human rights organizations representing the Sahrawi people. When I wanted to meet some, the Moroccan police blocked them.”

But above all, the press will reveal that, while being a MEP, Patricia Lalonde was on the board of directors of Euromeda. “I did not know at the time that she had gone with a delegation of deputies to the Sahara”, explains Gilles Pargneaux, specifying that the European Parliament’s ethics committee concluded that there was no violation of the code of conduct. “Her report was good, but faced with pressure from members of the Sahrawi intergroup, she resigned. As president of the foundation, I was the victim of a cabal,” laments the former Renaissance MEP.

Beyond the case of Patricia Lalonde, the former Portuguese socialist MEP Ana Gomes believes that certain trips at the time were also problematic. “It seemed clear that they were not paid by Parliament, believes Ana Gomès. These were trips that suited Morocco and involved going to fantastic hotels. Several times, Gilles Pargneaux asked me why I wasn’t coming.”

“I have never offered Ms. Gomes to come as part of a friendship group trip. And I have always respected the rules laid down by the European Parliament”, replies Gilles Pargneaux, who says he wants to sue the former MEP.

Third-party funded travel is still allowed

This question of the financing of MEPs’ travel remains unresolved in Parliament since travel financed by third parties is always authorized… provided that it is declared. Speaker of Parliament Roberta Metsola, herself pinned down for an undeclared trip to Israel, is not currently proposing to fundamentally change the system, after denouncing “an attack on European democracy” when the scandal was revealed. of corruption concerning its vice-president, Eva Kaili. As for any gifts received by the Moroccan authorities, Gilles Pargneaux assures that he has in all and for all received “four or five courtesy presents, less than 150 euros”, i.e. the legal limit set by the European Parliament.

The former MEP now works for a consulting company in France (P&B Partners) and as a “senior advisor” within Hill & Knowlton which, according to him, worked for Morocco twice “in 2011 and 2016”. . “It is perhaps a pledge of recognition of my professional activity”, comments the former MEP. “The context of our mission was to redress the disastrous image of Morocco, after the attacks, with European and Belgian institutions. Our contract was signed with the Moroccan ambassador to the EU. Then the Moroccan authorities decided to work with another agency,” said a source at Hill & Knowlton.