Friday

18th Oct 2019

Two nominees cleared of fraud on eve of EU hearings

Two EU nominees have been given the all-clear by fraud investigators on the eve of their European Parliament (EP) hearings.

The first, Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders, was accused by a former Belgian spy of being involved in various corruption schemes involving the Congo, Kazakhstan, Libya, and Belgian state contracts.

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The Brussels prosecutors' office launched a preliminary probe into the allegations some five months ago.

It shut down the case on Friday - two weeks after news of it came out and five days before Reynders, who is meant to be the EU's justice commissioner, is due to face his cross-examination by MEPs on Wednesday (2 October).

It "dismissed the case" because "there was no offence" committed, Reynders' lawyer, Didier Matray, who is a famous name in Belgium, told press.

But that might not be the end of the affair.

For his part, the spy-turned-whistleblower, Nicolas Ullens, and his equally famous lawyer, Alexis Deswaef, aim to hold a press conference in Brussels on Monday to hit back.

Ullens believes Reynders used family ties in the Belgian judiciary to get himself whitewashed.

Some Belgian MEPs are doing their own digging into the affair. And up to four new witnesses, Ullens says, are prepared to give evidence to back his claims.

Meanwhile, the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, also on Friday, closed its investigation into alleged misuse of EU funds by Polish nominee Janusz Wojciechowski, the would-be agriculture commissioner, in his time as an MEP.

Some "€11,243 had been unduly paid by the European Parliament to Mr Wojciechowski based on his travel declarations and attestations of attendance" Olaf said in a press release.

But "no disciplinary or judicial recommendations have been made" against him, it said.

He had already paid back the money, Olaf noted.

And Wojciechowski's explanation - that he had made an honest mistake - had some merit, Olaf hinted, by adding that the EP ought to "strengthen" its "administrative rules".

The Reynders and Wojciechowski decisions leave just one candidate, France's Sylvie Goulard, who is to be single market commissioner, still facing an ongoing investigation - also by Olaf and also into alleged misuse of EP funds when she was an MEP.

But that does not mean that the other 23 nominees are out of the woods.

The EP's legal affairs committee will decide on Monday morning whether Hungary and Romania's candidates - Laszlo Trocsanyi and Rovana Plumb - are fit to take up EU posts given the conflicts of interest that came out in their financial declarations.

Trocsanyi, the would-be EU enlargement commissioner, is more likely to be spared, EP sources said, even though the committee voiced "concern" on his links to a Hungarian law firm and to Russia.

But Plumb, who is to take the transport portfolio, was more fiercely criticised over a dodgy personal loan in the committee's initial appraisal.

And MEPs might ask questions on how Croatia's nominee, Dubravka Suica (who is to take the democracy and demography portfolio) suddenly became a millionaire back when she was mayor of Dubrovnik.

The hearings kick off on Monday afternoon with two less controversial candidates - Slovakia's Maros Sefcovic (inter-institutional affairs portfolio) and Ireland's Phil Hogan (trade).

The two former commissioners will face three hours each of questions from the foreign affairs, legal affairs, and international trade committees.

The hearings continue until 8 October, ending with another former commissioner, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, who is to be in charge of environmental matters.

The EP will then vote whether to approve the new European Commission en bloc before it takes up office on 1 November.

But the political scene is less amenable than in the past to cozy deals between the leading centre-right and centre-left political families, which lost their long-standing majority in the EP in European elections back in May.

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