Friday

7th Aug 2020

Belgium confirms probe into China-Malta spy threat

  • Malta's EU embassy overlooks the European Commission HQ in Brussels (Photo: google.be)

Belgian intelligence has confirmed it had investigated potential Chinese espionage out of Malta's EU embassy in Brussels, as two MEPs demand answers.

"There were Chinese people who were involved in the renovation of the Dar Malta embassy in 2007 and it caught our attention," Belgium's homeland security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), told EUobserver on Monday (18 May).

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The VSSE suspicions arose "without a foreign service having drawn our attention to this fact", it said.

"There has never been any evidence that Chinese spy activities have [actually] taken place from this building and we never said that was the case," the VSSE added.

And "it is incorrect that the VSSE officially accused Malta of spying," it said.

The comments came after French newspaper Le Monde, last Friday, reported on long-held VSSE suspicions that Chinese intelligence had installed surveillance equipment in Malta's EU embassy in Brussels in 2007, when a Chinese firm renovated the building.

The VSSE had been tipped off by British spies, Le Monde said, citing confidential files, and Belgium's security chief had passed on concerns to the then Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reynders.

Belgium is meant to warn EU institutions' security services about threats under a bilateral accord.

But the head of the EU foreign service, Josep Borrell, confirmed last Friday the EU had not been told anything.

"If the Belgians have something to tell us [on the China-Malta threat], they will, but for the time being [that] hasn't happened," Borrell told press.

And when asked by EUobserver on Monday if Borrell had had a chance to raise the matter with Reynders, who is now an EU commissioner, an EU spokesperson declined to answer.

"Everything related to maintenance and running of a facility belonging to an EU member state is subject to their sovereign decisions and procedures," the EU spokesperson said instead, referring to Malta.

"We are aware of the threats posed by possible espionage activities by third countries and take all the necessary precautionary measures to protect our institutions and staff," the spokesperson added.

One MEP, Dutch liberal Bart Groothuis, painted a less-than-serene image of EU security coordination, however.

Groothuis, also on Friday, had pinned down a commission vice-president, Valdis Dombrovskis, with a question on the China-Malta threat during a videoconference in a European Parliament committee.

And after the MEP's question was reported in weekend media, "Dombrovskis' cabinet phoned me twice this morning [Monday] to ask what he [Dombrovskis] had said and where," Groothuis told EUobserver.

"They didn't know if it was his [Dombrovskis'] problem, or Borrell's problem, or who should deal with it," Groothuis said.

Meanwhile, Dombrovskis' reply back on Friday had been so vague, that Groothuis and a second Dutch liberal MEP, Malik Azmani, filed a formal parliamentary question to Borrell on Monday evening.

If Malta's EU embassy had been compromised, it was a "grave security risk", not just because it overlooked the European Commission HQ, but because EU institutions and member states' "sensitive documents" flowed through Malta's IT systems there, the MEPs noted in a preamble.

They called for an EU "security review" and a "full enquiry" into who knew what and when.

They also asked Borrell if he agreed that Malta's decision to let the Chinese renovate its embassy had created "unacceptable security and political risks?".

"These kinds of things are normally done behind closed doors, and that's fine ... but if there was knowledge of an espionage threat, I don't see any reason in them [Belgium] not having mentioned it [to the EU]," Groothuis told this website.

Can EU trust Malta?

For its part, the Maltese government has tried to rubbish Le Monde's revelations, saying China had merely donated furniture to its EU mission.

But Groothuis, for one, was unconvinced.

"There ought to be pressure now to ask Malta: 'Can other EU member states and institutions trust your computer networks and physical facilities?'," he said.

Malta, in recent years, has courted Chinese and Russian investment.

A Chinese firm, Shanghai Electric Power, for instance, bought a 33 percent stake in Maltese energy supplier Enemalta in 2014 - shortly before Enemalta became embroiled in corruption allegations linked to the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

And for some experts, a hypothesis of China-Malta collusion on EU espionage was not to be ruled out.

"When you see the recent stories coming out of Malta - the murder of a journalist, arms trafficking, and so on - everything is possible," a Belgian security source said.

"It's incredible," the source added, on Belgian-EU security cooperation.

"Didier Reynders knew about the super-position of the Chinese [in the EU district] and he kept it to himself," the source said.

The Chinese EU mission in Brussels and China's ambassador to Belgium have denied any illegal activities in the country in previous comments to EUobserver.

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