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27th Sep 2020

China spy suspect worked for EU for 30 years

  • Gerhard Sabathil (l) at a high-level EU-China meeting while he still served in the EU foreign service in 2014 (Photo: eeas.europe.eu)

The former EU ambassador suspected by German prosecutors of spying for China was Gerhard Sabathil, according to EU officials speaking to EUobserver and to US newspaper the Washington Post on condition of anonymity.

The dual German-Hungarian national had served as the EU envoy to South Korea, Germany, Iceland, and Norway prior to going to work for Eutop, a mid-sized lobbying firm with offices in Brussels, Berlin, and Munich, in 2017, where he was still listed as a "managing director" on its website on Friday (17 January).

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He had also been the EU foreign service's charge d'affaires in Bratislava and Prague and its director for east Asia and the Pacific.

And he had worked in the European Commission's competition, industry, budgets, and Western Balkans departments, as well as teaching at the College of Bruges, an elite academy, in an EU career which had spanned "more than 30 years", according to his Eutop biography.

News that a former EU ambassador was suspected of passing commercial secrets to Chinese spies first broke in German daily Der Spiegel on Wednesday, but Der Spiegel did not name him.

For its part, Eutop declined to give EUobserver Sabathil's contact details.

A law firm representing the lobby company also said: "The circumstances [the German investigation] described by you do not concern the activities of our client, [so] we see no reason for our client to comment".

Eutop employs 16 people in its Brussels office, which does about €2.8m of business a year, representing big clients such as British American Tobacco, Deutsche Telekom, General Electric, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Meanwhile, the EU foreign service said it was ready to cooperate with German and Belgian authorities, who had conducted raids on properties in Brussels and Berlin on the case.

No EU buildings had been raided, an EU foreign service spokeswoman said on Thursday.

But "as any diplomatic service, we know we can be the target of hostile intelligence services and we take measures to protect ourselves," she added.

The EU foreign service had a "special cell" which gave "awareness briefings" to staff both in the EU capital and overseas on issues such as how to use social media, she said.

"Staff are properly briefed and sensitised to this risk [of foreign spies]," the EU spokeswoman said.

But both the EU foreign service and the College of Europe removed links to their webpages on Sabathil the same day, in a sign of the PR damage the imbroglio risked causing.

"Mr. Gerhard Sabathil taught in the political and governance studies department for a short period whilst he was working for the EEAS [the European External Action Service], but ... he is no longer linked to the College of Europe," the academy's press service said.

Revolving doors

Senior EU officials often go to work for lobbying firms in Europe in a practice known as 'revolving doors' by pro-transparency NGOs, who say it poses a risk to EU information security and on influence-peddling.

At the same time, the EU foreign service has estimated there are about 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies in Belgium, according to an internal memo seen by German daily Die Welt.

Belgian intelligence services are responsible for protecting the international institutions there.

But the two Belgian spy services, the VSSE and the ADIV, have just 30 or so counter-intelligence officers investigating Chinese and Russian espionage, according to a Belgian security source who previously spoke to EUobserver.

And the EU foreign service itself has only five or so seconded national experts to help it do counter-intelligence, an EU source added.

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