5th Jun 2020

Belgium kept EU in the dark on China threat

  • EU commissioner Didier Reynders (l) and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (r) on trip to Africa earlier this year (Photo:

Painful questions on China have gatecrashed EU foreign affairs talks once again, amid fresh news of espionage in Brussels.

"If the Belgians have something to tell us [on the China allegations], they will, but for the time being [that] hasn't happened," EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell told press on Friday (15 May).

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"I have been informed of this news, but I only have the news from the press," he added, after speaking with EU foreign ministers in a videoconference.

The news, in French newspaper Le Monde on Friday morning, was that China had, years ago, installed surveillance equipment in Malta EU's embassy in Brussels, according to British and Belgian intelligence.

The Maltese building overlooks the European Commission HQ, where Borrell and top EU officials work.

And a Belgian spy chief, Alain Winants, warned the then Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reynders, about the China/Malta threat, Le Monde said, citing confidential Belgian files.

It was not clear what Reynders, who is now an EU commissioner and who speaks with Borrell at least once a week, did with the information.

But Belgium is meant to protect EU and Nato institutions on its territory from hostile espionage.

And given Borrell's surprise on Friday, a Dutch liberal MEP, Bart Groothuis, for one, wanted to know more.

He had asked commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis to look into "the problem of the Chinese state renovating the Maltese embassy", and the issue was on Dombrovskis' "agenda", Groothuis said on Twitter.

The suspicions arose after a Chinese firm did work on Malta's EU embassy in 2007, Le Monde said.

And Winants, the Belgian spy chief, had been tipped off by British intelligence, the French newspaper added.

The China/Malta alert is the third time in recent weeks that China has barged into Borrell's press briefings.

The last time, it embarrassed him by bowdlerising an EU statement on coronavirus published in Chinese state media.

Earlier, Borrell was forced to defend himself against leaked emails saying he had bowed to Chinese pressure by toning down an EU report on coronavirus disinformation.

For its part, Malta said Le Monde had got it wrong.

China had merely donated furniture to its EU embassy, "for which the [Maltese] government remains thankful," Malta said in a statement.

There was nothing "illicit" about China's gift, Malta said.

And "80 percent of the mentioned furniture has over the past two years been disposed of and replaced by new furniture procured from Malta," anyway, it added.

Le Monde's revelations came after Belgian intelligence, in recent years, also raised the alarm on Chinese scientific espionage.

And they come amid wider fears on Chinese installation of 5G data networks and takeovers of important European firms.

"I view China as the strategic competitor for Europe, that represents an authoritarian model of society, that wants to expand its power and replace the United States as a leading power," Manfred Weber, a senior centre-right MEP from Germany, said in German newspaper Welt am Sonntag this weekend.

The EU should ban Chinese takeovers of European firms for a year, he said.

"Chinese companies, partly with the support of state funds, are increasingly trying to buy up European companies that are cheap to acquire or that got into economic difficulties due to the coronavirus crisis," Weber said.

EU underbelly

Meanwhile, conflicts in north Africa and the Middle East were the main subjects on Borrell's official agenda on Friday.

The EU foreign service has not yet circulated options on sanctions against Israel if it annexed more Palestinian land, diplomatic sources told EUobserver.

But Borrell pledged to use all the EU's "geopolitical power" and "diplomatic power" to deter the new Israeli government from going ahead.

EU foreign ministers, in a joint statement, "deplored" Turkey's latest gas-drilling operation in Cyprus' waters and "condemned" Turkey's almost-routine violations of Greek airspace.

Turning to Libya, Borrell said one warship and one surveillance plane were already "in the sea and in the air" gathering intelligence on Libya arms smuggling in an EU operation called Irini.

But fighting in Libya had intensified and casualty figures were mounting, he noted.

The pandemic was an "accelerator" of crises in the EU's southern neighbourhood, he warned.

EU consular cooperation, including a special "taskforce" in Brussels, meant that 600,000 Europeans had now been repatriated from various worldwide locations, Borrell said.

But 10,000 EU nationals were still struggling to get home, he noted.

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