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Margaritas Schinas. © EPA, Francisco Seco
Prominent EU Commissioner gratefully accepted royal treatment in the Emirates
In December, Brussels woke up to the reality that MEPs can be susceptible to gifts from countries like Qatar, which are known for their human rights violations. EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas also likes to be pampered by Gulf states. He’s not breaking any laws, but the globe-trotting Greek seems to be making a mockery of the ‘European values’ that he is meant to promote.
- In the aftermath of Qatargate, the corruption scandal in the European Parliament, Follow the Money took a closer look at Greek EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas’ official missions to the Gulf region. With 11 overnight stays during three trips, Schinas is the Commissioner who spent the most time in the Gulf.
- During his first visit, his accommodation in luxury resorts was fully covered by his host, the United Arab Emirates. Schinas stayed there at least one night longer than necessary. For his second trip to the Gulf region, Schinas used a private plane paid for by the European Commission. The Commission will not release details on his third and longest trip until the end of February.
- Schinas met at least three times with the Qatari Minister of Labour, internationally famous after the FIFA World Cup for which stadiums were erected under brutal conditions. This Qatari minister is named in press reports as a key figure in the Brussels corruption affair. Schinas also met at least twice with his compatriot Eva Kaili, the now-former vice-president of the European Parliament who is currently detained in Belgium – including at a party in Greece in honour of Saudi Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
- Remarkably, Schinas maintains excellent relations with officials in the Gulf States but consistently remains silent on human rights violations in the region. As vice-president of the European Commission, his job is to promote ‘the European way of life’. But all his speeches and tweets about ‘our partners’ in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar contain only praise – he never confronts his hosts with the principles that the European Union is supposed to stand for.
EU Commissioner Margaritis Schinas is a familiar face in Brussels. More than 30 years ago, this Greek began his career as a European Commission official. He gained prominence during his period as chief spokesperson between 2014 and 2019.
A smooth operator, Schinas managed for years to deflect difficult questions from journalists. He is described as highly intelligent and is known to have a good network within the current Greek government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Schinas worked his way up the ladder and was a member of the European Parliament from 2007 to 2009. He met his Spanish wife in the 1980s when they were both studying in Bruges at the College of Europe – an academic institution popular with Europe’s administrative elite.
In 2019, Schinas – a centre-right politician and member of Mitsotakis’ Greek New Democracy party – was appointed Commissioner in charge of ‘promoting the European way of life’. His title raised eyebrows as it was viewed as bad framing: Schinas’s duties mainly concern migration and security.
FIFA World Cup
When the big corruption scandal erupted in the European Parliament late last year [see frame ‘Qatargate’], Commissioner Margaritis Schinas quickly came under scrutiny. Schinas has publicly been praising the Gulf State on several occasions, much like his compatriot Eva Kaili, former vice-president of the European Parliament. Kaili is in detention since 9 December as part of an investigation into criminal organisation, corruption and money laundering at the parliament.
In response to criticism about the working conditions during the construction of football stadiums for the FIFA World Cup, Schinas tweeted from the colourful opening ceremony he was attending: ‘Qatar [..] delivered reforms and merits a global success.’
Soon after Kaili’s arrest, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was asked whether judicial authorities in Belgium also investigate European Commission members and whether she supports Schinas’ public statements. Von der Leyen sidestepped those questions, leading to uproar among the attending journalists – who kept pressing for clear answers until the Commission spokesperson called an end to the press conference.
The following day, on 13 December, Schinas tried to fend off the mounting criticism. ‘Let me be very clear and simple,’ he said. ‘I was in the opening ceremony of the World Cup as a representative of the Commission. It was the first post-pandemic global sports event, and Europe could not be absent from that occasion.’
Reflecting on his personal integrity, Schinas stated: ‘In all my public statements on Qatar, every single world is fully, 100 per cent compatible with European Commission policy.’ And: ‘For me, after 32 years of public service, there is only light. I will tweet, and I will keep tweeting as a sign of transparency.’
Tribute to the Gulf
Follow the Money fact-checked Schinas’ words and scrutinised his ties with the Gulf States. While our investigation shows no evidence that Schinas broke the rules, his warm relations in that region are certainly questionable. His friendly tweets on countries like Qatar, for example, cannot as easily be squared with the official positions of the European Commission as Schinas suggested in December.
A shock wave swept through Brussels in December when details emerged of a corruption scandal of unprecedented magnitude. Members of the European Parliament are suspected of having accepted bribes from Qatar and Morocco. In return, they allegedly represented those countries’ interests in Brussels.
Judicial authorities seized nearly 1.5 million euros in cash during dozens of raids at homes in Belgium and Italy. Four suspects, including Eva Kaili, one of the 14 vice presidents of the European Parliament, remain in custody to date. According to the investigators, Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former MEP, played a central role in receiving and distributing the bribes.
Follow the Money previously highlighted that the corruption resulted from a culture of impunity within parliament. On 16 January, President Roberto Metsola put forward a proposal to increase the integrity, independence and accountability of parliament. But experts dismissed the plan as being inadequate.
Meanwhile, prison seems to have an effect on the accused. Francesco Giorgi, Eva Kaili’s partner, already confessed at the start of his detention.
German weekly Der Spiegel published a reconstruction that – based on Giorgi’s confessions – shows that in addition to Qatar and Morocco, Mauritania and perhaps even Saudi Arabia are involved in the corruption scandal.
Pier Antonio Panzeri struck a deal with Belgian authorities on 17 January that offers him the prospect of a reduced sentence in exchange for ‘substantial, revealing, truthful and complete statements’ about his own involvement and that of others.
Although the Commission was lenient in its criticism – especially since the Ukraine war started – it also stated that human rights, democratisation and rule of law-related ‘challenges remain’ in Gulf countries.
Schinas, on the other hand, has systematically lauded Qatar and its regional rival, the United Arab Emirates, despite their frequent human rights violations. He did so even before Russia halted its gas exports, which made Europe more dependent on oil and gas from the Gulf region.
The latest freedom index by US organisation Freedom House shows that the United Arab Emirates barely scores 17 out of 100 points, meaning that its residents hardly have access to political rights and civil liberties. The UAE is faring worse than, for instance, Iraq (29), Russia (19, just before it invaded Ukraine) and DR Congo (19).
Qatar scores a meagre 25 out of 100 points. Hungary, in comparison, was the worst-scoring EU country with 69 points.
‘A beacon of inspiration’
But Schinas, the EU Commissioner for the European Way of Life, who also deals with issues such as equality and diversity, did not utter a single word of criticism about Qatar or the United Arab Emirates in any of the public statements we found (26 tweets, three streamed speeches and nine interviews with local media in the Gulf region).
He invariably refers to both countries as ‘partners’ of the European Union. And in an interview with an English newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, he describes that country as ’a beacon of power, influence and inspiration’.
Schinas described being elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2021 as
‘the culmination of the UAE’s efforts to strengthen human rights and freedoms and is a testament to the importance the UAE places on human rights’.
That position on the Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, led to fierce criticism worldwide. NGO Human Rights Watch referenced, among other issues, the fate of human rights activist and blogger Ahmed Mansoor, who received a 10-year prison sentence in 2018 ‘after a grossly unfair trial’, and said that he ‘is imprisoned without a mattress in near-total isolation’.
As the European Parliament is concerned about Mansoor, one of Schinas’s colleagues – Swedish EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson (security and migration) – stressed in September 2021 that ‘the EU will remain actively engaged on human rights and human-right defenders in the United Arab Emirates.’
Johansson explicitly promised that the Commission would ‘continue to follow closely and raise the case of Ahmed Mansoor’. Barely a month later, Schinas left on his first official mission to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He did not utter a word about the political prisoner.
The statements Schinas made – and his silence – contrast sharply with how he profiled himself in the European Parliament prior to his appointment: ‘Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minority groups, pluralism and equality between women and men – these are the values and principles on which our Union is built. Being European means [..] standing up for those rights, principles and values at home and abroad.’
The United Arab Emirates are eminently a country where Schinas should have addressed those rights.
The US State Department wasn’t amused either. It spoke in a 2021 report of ‘significant human rights issues’ within that country. It referred to ‘credible reports’ of, for example, torture while in detention, arbitrary arrests, political prisoners, ‘severe restrictions’ on freedom of expression and harassment of human rights organisations.
People across the world sympathised when the BBC in 2021 broadcasted footage of then-35-year-old princess Latifa being held hostage by her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in Dubai. She wanted to do the ‘normal things’ that women do, such as study or travel but was not allowed to leave the palace after she attempted to escape by boat in 2018 and was recaptured by soldiers.
All issues for which Schinas seems to have no regard. When asked, the EU Commission maintains that ‘in all his statements and in all his missions’ Schnas ‘followed the official positions of the Commission’.
Trotting around the Gulf
The reception Schinas enjoys in the Gulf States is just as joyful as his statements.
Schinas’s first official mission to the region took him to the city of Dubai, the capital of the most populated of the seven Emirates in the autumn of 2021. He attended the ‘Expo 2020 Dubai’ world exhibition, which had been postponed for a year due to the pandemic. The event lasted six months and, according to organisers, attracted 24 million visitors. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Emirati star Hussain Al Jassmi performed at the opening ceremony.
On 23 October, Schinas represented the Union at the official ceremony marking the expo’s ‘EU Honour Day’. Once again, nothing but praise resounded from the Greek dignitary’s mouth: ‘Dubai is known as the town of tourism, hospitality and business with many experiences to enjoy and all this in a harmonious way.’
Needless to say, he lacked nothing. Schinas declared 4,421.50 euros in travel expenses to the Commission for his four-day visit from 21 to 25 October, but under hotel expenses, the amount was ‘0’.
When asked, the Commission admits that the United Arab Emirates bore those costs: ‘The Vice-President [Schinas] was asked by the President [Von der Leyen] to represent the Commission at the EXPO 2020 Dubai / EU Honour Day. The State of Emirates offered the accommodation as per standard practice/ hospitality culture to all VIPs attending the Expo.’
The UAE did not respond to questions about which people were on the VIP list whose accommodation it paid for. It is notable, however, that two of Schinas’ colleagues, who visited the World Expo at later dates, did not enjoy hotel stays at the Emirates’ expense. Polish Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski and Finland’s Jutta Urpilainen declared their expenses to the Commission, including accommodation for overnight stays.
‘Head of state’
When questioned, the Commission claimed that Schinas’s preferential treatment was due to the special recognition day in honour of the European Union: ‘This is a normal and frequent practice of state diplomacy that the host state provides accommodation during State visits,’ a spokesperson said. The Commission thus argues that Schinas had been promoted to head of state for the occasion.
The Commission confirms that during his visit, he stayed at the St Regis Hotel in Dubai and the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, which describes itself on its website as: ‘Located on a pristine private beach, Emirates Palace is the epitome of luxury in Abu Dhabi, showcasing Arabian hospitality at its finest’. And: ‘Each of the resort’s rooms and suites is furnished to the highest levels of comfort, has stunning views and offers 24-hour butler service.’
Heads of state often receive such hospitable treatment. When asked, the Netherlands confirmed that, for example, the Dutch royal couple also stayed in Dubai at the Emirates’ expense. ‘When a head of state, head of government or foreign minister visits, it is standard practice in many countries, including the Netherlands, for the host country to offer hotel accommodation as part of its hospitality.’
The same applies to King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, who spent a day visiting the Belgian National Day at the Dubai Expo and stayed the night at the Emirates Palace at the expense of the United Arab Emirates, according to a palace spokesman in Belgium.
It is striking that Schinas received no less than three free hotel stays for that one festive day in honour of the EU. His activities on the other days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi were devoted to his own portfolio ‘to promote the European way of life’, and thus did not warrant a status upgrade or preferential treatment. He spoke with government delegates on issues such as tolerance and ‘youth mobility’ and told local diplomacy students ‘about his responsibilities as Vice-President and the EU’s crucial role in addressing global challenges’.
It seems that ministers from EU countries have not had the opportunity to partake in Arab hospitality at all – not even high-ranking ones like Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne and the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmès. Nor did the two Dutch Ministers of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation who visited the expo, Tom de Bruijn (D66) and Liesje Schreinemacher (VVD), who succeeded De Bruijn in 2022.
Spokespersons for Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that Belgian taxpayers bore the accommodation costs for all these ministers.
Meanwhile, the European Commission maintains that the costs of Schinas’s trip were duly declared and registered with the Protocol Service. However, that data is not public, and when asked, the spokesperson could not tell Follow the Money ‘the rate the respective governments paid for these hotel rooms’.
Hotel websites, however, give an impression of the going rates. A two-night stay at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi in late February, costs between 1,408 euros on Booking.com for a standard room with a city view up to a lavish 38,242 euros for the royal suite.
Barely a month after he visited the Dubai expo, EU Commissioner Schinas once again travelled to the Middle East.
In the context of the refugee crisis in Belarus, he flew to Dubai and to the Lebanese capital Beirut on a private jet – the Commission calls it an ‘air taxi’ – between 10 and 12 November. The price tag of these flights: 24,166 euros, at the European taxpayers’ expense.
Schinas further claimed hotel expenses totalling 162.77 euros, which the Commission covered. According to its spokesperson, Schinas spent one night on the plane and only claimed a refund for the second night at the Mövenpick Hotel in Beirut.
Under the Code of Conduct for members of the European Commission, the use of the ‘air taxi’ requires approval from the Commission President. It should only be used in exceptional circumstances, meaning when commercial flights are unavailable or do not coincide with the Commissioner’s agenda or for security reasons. ‘A careful check of all options should be made, including agenda planning, so that the air taxi is only envisaged as a last option.’
It is difficult to determine whether a private jet was the only available option for Schinas in November 2021, but the circumstances indeed make such a scenario plausible. At that time, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was accused of ‘unleashing’ several thousand refugees at his country’s western border on neighbouring EU member states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Schinas had to act quickly, as Commission President von der Leyen had instructed him and Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, on 8 November to talk to the main countries of the refugees’ origin (Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan) and transit (UAE, Turkey and Lebanon). Schinas and Borrell were to ensure that those countries would act ‘to prevent their own nationals from falling into the trap set by Belarusian authorities’.
A very encouraging visit to the United Arab Emirates today. I welcome the strong engagement of this key EU partner in helping to put a stop to the instrumentaisation of people by Belarus.— Margaritis Schinas (@MargSchinas) November 11, 2021
We must build a coalition in response to the unscrupulous actions of the Lukashenko regime. pic.twitter.com/07tafjSBUW
Admittedly, the EU Commissioner managed to make swift progress. He succeeded in meeting with two confidants of the Emirati president barely three days later. ‘I welcome strong engagement of this key EU partner in helping to put a stop to the instrumentalisation of people by Belarus,’ he tweeted.
But although Schinas was highly praised by Von der Leyen for his approach, the necessity and success of his trip are less unequivocal, according to migration expert Helena Hahn.
Europe could already severely punish airlines like Etihad and Emirates for transporting refugees lacking the proper papers. At the time, it was also considering new sanctions if they cooperated with Lukashenko’s ‘instrumentalisation’ of refugees. ‘It is fair to say that he went on this trip with a stick firmly in his hands,’ says Hahn, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels.
During his third and most recent official mission to the region, from 14 to 21 November 2022, Schinas spent time in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The Commission will only release details on the cost of that trip at the end of February.
On that trip, the EU Commissioner was unusually critical of Kuwait. ‘It is regrettable that despite raising this yesterday and having received assurances to the contrary, Kuwait went ahead with 7 executions today. We will draw the consequences this will have on discussions on the proposal to put Kuwait on the visa-free list,’ Schinas tweeted.
In the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, he resumes his positive tone. ‘Excellent’, ‘friendly’, ‘dynamic’, ‘partners’, ‘foster relations’, ‘progress on labour reforms’, and ‘global success’ are just some of the terms he uses.
He also enjoyed a cup of coffee with MEP Eva Kaili over there, who was whisked off exactly three weeks later to a Belgian prison as part of an investigation into corruption, money laundering and criminal organisation at the European Parliament.
Two days later, Schinas met the local Labour Minister, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri (Marri for short), in Qatar. Marri was responsible for the construction of the football stadiums. The two also met in Brussels in December 2021 and May 2022: on each occasion, Schinas tweeted positively about the EU-Qatar ‘partnership’.
Marri is also suspected of playing a key role in the bribery scandal. Francesco Giorgi, Eva Kaili’s partner who is also in detention, accuses Marri of handing the Qatari cash to Pier Panzeri, the key figure in the corruption case, German weekly Der Spiegel revealed on 20 January.
Partying with MBS
Schinas also met Kaili a few months before they had coffee in the Gulf. The occasion was a dinner in honour of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) at the exclusive Four Seasons Hotel on the Greek peninsula of Vouliagmeni, as reported by the Italian newspaper Domani. It was MBS’s first visit to the EU since the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) holds the crown prince responsible.
Schinas did not tweet about his attendance at the dinner. His expense report mentions ‘meetings with the Greek government organised by the prime minister’. According to Domani, Prime Minister Mitsotakis was indeed present at the dinner with MBS, with whom he had clinched an energy deal the day before.
To be clear, there is no evidence that Schinas received bribes. The Belgian prosecutor’s office does not comment on whether it is or has been investigating the EU Commissioner’s activities. But given his royal treatment in the Gulf region, the individuals he hung out with and the statements he made, it is clear that he was flirting with the ethical limits of his mandate.
Others have noticed this as well. ‘I know Schinas likes to visit the region and be pampered. So do other commissioners, for that matter,’ says an experienced lobbyist. This lobbyist works on behalf of non-EU countries and wishes to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardising his ties with the Commission.
He personally has no moral qualms about the grey area officials like Schinas enter. ‘Invitations to conferences and the like are gladly accepted by some. Is that corruption? In any case, I am convinced that when they go there and go there often, they will return with a more favourable view.’
This is precisely what Michiel van Hulten fears. He is the director of Transparency International, a NGO that fights corruption worldwide. Trips paid for by third-country governments or entities are permitted under the current rules as long as they are registered. But there is a risk that members will become ‘indebted’ to their hosts. Van Hulten: ‘A debt they must then repay with political favours.’
There is no lack of policy files in Brussels on which the UAE could use some help. And Schinas appears to have been keen to weigh in.
In Dubai, he stressed that the EU had lifted Covid-19 travel restrictions from the Emirates. He added that the UAE was ‘in the process of being ‘linked to the EU Digital Covid Certificate, which would further open up travel and boost economies’.
And during his most recent visit to the region, Schinas said in an interview that he had discussed with ministers and youth organisations how young Emiratis would be able to pursue EU educational programmes in Europe with grants from the Erasmus+ programme.
The grey area within which the Commission approves free hotel accommodation for members like Schinas therefore appears to be very broad (see: Trips taken by other Commissioners). According to Transparency International, it would be better to avoid any hint of a conflict of interest.
Van Hulten points out that there is no financial need for EU institutions or policymakers to accept trips paid for by third parties. ‘In our view, such trips should be banned, both for parliament and the Commission.
It is less clear to what extent other EU Commissioners enjoyed being spoiled in the Gulf.
Of the 21 missions Commissioners undertook to the region under Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency (since 2019), only three stays were declared at zero cost to the Commission and were thus paid for by other organisations.
Besides Schinas, these include a trip by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and one by Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
According to the Commission, Josep Borrell stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha for two nights in March 2022, at Qatar’s expense, during his visit to the Doha Forum, where geopolitical and economic issues were discussed.
The Commission says it approved the accommodation because it was in line with ‘diplomatic customs and courtesies’ as mentioned in Article 6.5 of its Code of Conduct. After all, as head of the diplomatic service, Borrell is the EU’s ‘Minister of Foreign Affairs’. According to international custom, that would allow him to accept this kind of gift, provided the Union then also returns the invitation.
Hahn’s trip in February 2022 was part of an official mission seeking international funders for the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. According to a Commission spokesperson, the EU Commissioner stayed for one night in the Qatari capital Doha and one night in Kuwait, both at the local Four Seasons Hotel and at the expense of the hosts. Room rates at these hotels range from 346 euros to 8,996 euros in Kuwait and from 242 euros to 830 euros in Doha.
The explanation used by the Commission to justify the free accommodation seems far-fetched. ‘At the time, Qatar and Kuwait were imposing travel restrictions to visitors due to Covid-19 unless they had received a formal governmental invitation,’ a spokesperson said. And: ‘Qatar and Kuwait offer accommodation to all VIPs that have received a government invitation, as per diplomatic hospitality.’ Hence the Commission also approved this free accommodation under Article 6.5, even though Commissioner Hahn is not a head of state or Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Conclusion: a broad interpretation of the ‘diplomatic customs and courtesies’ referred to in the European Commission’s Rules of Procedure allows many EU Commissioners to be lavishly pampered at the expense of the host country.
The Commission says it does ‘not offer accommodation or transportation when guests come to see the Members of the College’ in Brussels. In the context of a conference, it ‘might provide accommodation’ to participants, a spokesperson said.
With the participation of Ada Homolová and Janine Louloudi (Reporters United)
Translation: Delia Burggraaf
Update: In response to the publication of this article, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen came out in support of Schinas.
‘President von der Leyen has full trust in all the College members, including Vice-President Schinas and none of the allegations brought against the Vice-President has impacted this support,’ European Commission Chief Spokesperson Eric Mamer (who succeeds Schinas in the role) said in an emailed statement.
Mamer also repeated that ‘each of the missions carried out by Vice-President Schinas in the Gulf states was upon the request of President von der Leyen’ and noted that all of his tweets on Qatar were ‘fully in line with the position of the Commission’.