Wednesday

30th Sep 2020

Investigation

In detail: Belgium's EU nominee faces crime probe

  • Ursula von der Leyen and Didier Reynders: Belgian EU nominee to hold justice post

Belgium's nominee for EU justice commissioner was part of a corruption scheme involving the Congo and Libya, a Belgian former spy has testified.

The nominee, Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders, swiftly denied the accusations, details of which were seen by EUobserver, but Belgian prosecutors are looking into the case as he prepares to take up his EU post.

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  • Belgian intelligence service, VSSE, helps to protect Nato from foreign espionage (Photo: nato.int)

Reynders and an old associate of his called Jean-Claude Fontinoy were part of a "veritable criminal association" involved in taking "bribes" and "money-laundering", the Belgian former intelligence officer told Belgian federal police in April.

Fontinoy is an expert attached to Reynders' cabinet and is the president of the Belgian state railway firm, the SNCB, but was "in reality his [Reynders'] right-hand man" in the alleged "corruption operations", the ex-officer said.

The alleged schemes involved kick-backs on the construction of Belgium's embassy in Kinshasa in 2017 and pay-offs by a Congelese election candidate in return for diplomatic support, the ex-officer's six-page police testimony, seen by EUobserver, said.

The alleged schemes also involved clandestine arms sales to Libya and the award of state contracts in Belgium, for instance, on a new police HQ in Brussels, the testimony added.

The accusations were put forward by Nicolas Ullens De Schootens, a former officer in the economic unit of Belgium's domestic intelligence service, the VSSE.

The 54-year old Belgian aristocrat, who had worked at the VSSE for 11 years, resigned last March then walked into the federal police building on Rue Royale in Brussels at 3.10PM on 2 April this year and spoke out.

He cited interviews with informants, submitted supporting documents, and referred to telephone records.

He named an offshore firm in Luxembourg which allegedly handled bribes and said Belgian real estate and art sales were also used to launder funds.

News of the fiasco broke at the weekend, when Belgian financial newspaper De Tijd published a story citing the police testimony.

The public prosecutor's office in Brussels also confirmed that there was an "ongoing" criminal investigation into the matter, focusing on the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa.

'Some malicious man'

Reynders himself told Belgian media he had instructed his lawyer to "deny the allegations".

They were all being "circulated by one person", he noted, referring to the ex-VSSE officer.

The "same malicious man" had previously tried to smear the Belgian minister, Reynders' spokesman, John Hendrickx, also told press.

Reynders, a Belgian liberal politician who is also deputy prime minister and defence minister, added that it was "never pleasant" to be targeted in this way and that he hoped the whole thing would be "clarified as soon as possible".

But the Belgian newspaper, De Tijd, broke the story at a sensitive moment.

The new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed, just last week, that Reynders should be an EU commissioner in charge of justice and he is due to face a grilling on his suitability by MEPs in early October.

The commission declined to comment on the revelations, citing presumption of innocence and the fact the Belgian prosecutor had so far opened a preliminary investigation only.

Hendrickx, Reynders' spokesman, did not reply when contacted by EUobserver.

But if the affair is not swiftly put to rest, it could overshadow his upcoming European Parliament interrogation.

It could have broader impact, for instance, by emboldening populist governments in Hungary and Poland, who are under EU sanctions procedures for abuse of justice and who have complained, for years, about hypocrisy and double standards in the European establishment.

And the allegations posed concrete questions on Nato and EU security.

Reynders attends Nato meetings and the VSSE, the Belgian intelligence service, is in charge of protecting Nato and EU institutions in the country from foreign espionage.

But Ullens De Schootens also denounced two serving VSSE officers, including a top counter-intelligence officer, for having links to the Libya scam, painting a sorry picture of the Belgian guardians.

Belgian rule of law

The mere fact the Brussels prosecutor has opened an investigation does not mean it believes the case has substance, because under Belgian law authorities are obliged to look into such police complaints.

It is unclear when it might decide whether or not to pursue the matter further.

But Belgian justice sometimes moves slowly.

Belgium's national audit office, the Corps interfederal de l'Inspection des finances (Inspfin), only recently found serious irregularities, worth €40m, in the 2013 relocation of the country's police HQ, Belgian daily L'Echo reported in August, citing a leaked Inspfin report.

But the VSSE already red-flagged the case almost 10 years ago, when talks on the new police HQ first began, according to two internal VSSE documents also seen by EUobserver.

The files, marked "secret" and dating back to 2010 and 2011, cited tip-offs that people with links to Belgium's main political parties had met one evening at a restaurant in Brussels to divide up the spoils from the alleged HQ fraud.

The VSSE reports also gave colourful details on money-laundering methods.

Companies sometimes paid bribes in return for favours by purchasing pseudo-artwork from the agents of corrupt officials, one of the documents said.

"Take an example ... an object with no value, such as a used fridge daubed in paint, [is sold] to the company that is to be corrupted [give a bribe] for an important sum on the pretext that it's a piece of inestimable value", a VSSE report seen by EUobserver said.

Revelation of classified information such as this by journalists in Belgium could in future be punishable by stiff fines, under a draft law personally endorsed by Reynders a few months ago.

Belgian jurisdiction covers international media in Brussels who report on the EU.

But Reynders' bill is likely to be amended following an outcry by Belgian and international press freedom groups.

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