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18th Oct 2019

Belgium's EU nominee sails through, despite allegations

  • Veteran politician has attended 41 ministers' meetings at the EU Council in his time as Belgium's finance and foreign minister (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Belgium's EU commission nominee has promised to be tough on countries such as Hungary or Poland on rule of law, while brushing off allegations that he was himself corrupt.

"Trust me, I will not hesitate to act when rule of law is in danger I will not compromise when democracy is at stake," the would-be justice commissioner said in his European Parliament (EP) hearing on Tuesday (2 October).

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"I want to go forward on Article 7 procedures, not only in actual cases that we have, but also if it's needed in other cases," he said, referring to ongoing sanctions procedures against Hungary and Poland, and the EU treaty clause that governs them.

He supported the previously proposed "conditionality of EU funds" on good behaviour.

He also said he would help to fund civil society in problem countries, specifically mentioning pro-LGBTI groups in their struggle against Poland's right-wing government.

The questions came amid concern that the incoming European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, had done a deal with Hungary and Poland in order to secure her own nomination.

And Didier Reynders nodded to their complaints by saying he would be "objective and non-discriminatory" in his approach.

The Belgian nominee also came into the hearing amid a swirl of allegations, made by a former Belgian intelligence officer, that he was himself involved in corruption schemes.

'Malicious actions'

A Belgian prosecutor had dismissed the "malicious actions" last Friday, he noted.

"I wouldn't wish for anyone to go through what my family, my spouse, my children have had to experience over the past 15 days. Rule of law also means presumption of innocence," he said.

Just two of the more than 20 MEPs, both of them from the EP fringe, who fired questions at him on Tuesday referred to the case.

"Why should citizens in Europe trust you" when the Belgian "whistleblower" had put "facts and figures" about alleged dodgy dealings on Libya into the public domain?, Tom Vandenriessche, a Belgian far-right MEP, asked.

He was referring to the fact, established by a UN enquiry, that billions of euros of frozen Libya funds in a Belgian banks were mysteriously paid out back in 2015 when Reynders was finance minister.

The "whistleblower", a former intelligence officer called Nicolas Ullens, had alleged Reynders signed off on the payments in return for kick-backs on Belgian arms sales to Libya.

But Reynders brushed off the question, referring to his own "introductory remarks" on his innocence.

That left Anne Widdecombe, a British eurosceptic MEP, to remind him that Belgium's federal prosecutor was examining a fresh complaint made by Ullens on Monday and to suggest that he should stand aside until the affair had been put to rest.

"There are no charges [against me] so I have no intention to make a pause," Reynders said.

Whistleblowers

Cornelia Ernst, a German far-left MEP, also noted that Reynders had, a few months ago, personally proposed a Belgian law to punish people such as Ullens who revealed classified information as well as journalists who published it.

But Reynders said that law would be "adjusted" regarding the media gag.

For his part, Ullens said he had faced death threats when he dared to speak out.

But Reynders said, alluding to Ullens, that only "real whistleblowers" ought to get more support under EU law, including "on the psychological side", while those who leaked secrets ought to pay a price.

MEPs from parliament's main groups - the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), Socialists & Democrats (S&D), and the liberal Renew Europe group - ignored the allegations.

Some of them, such as the EPP's Marion Walsmann and the S&D's Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar also praised Reynders performance and the hearing ended with a warm round of applause.

Walsmann, from Germany, thanked him for his "clear answers". Lopez Aguilar thanked him for his "energy and patience". "Surely, we'll be seeing more of you [as an EU commissioner]," Lopez Aguilar said.

"We nailed it! Renew rule of law champion!," a liberal Belgian MEP, Hilde Vautmans, from Reynders' own political family, Renew, added on Twitter.

'We nailed it'

And EP sources told Belgian media shortly after the hearing ended that Reynders had secured the green light to go through.

Most of Tuesday's questions asked about Reynders' plans for the new European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), the European Arrest Warrant, and EU passport sales by Malta and Cyprus.

They also asked about consumer protection - the other half of his hybrid portfolio - in areas such as regulation of artificial intelligence, data protection, and counterfeit goods.

The EPPO would be "up and running by 2020" in its investigations into cross-border fraud on EU funds, he said.

The office ought to have its own "college" of prosecutors for each of the 22 participating member states and ought to extend its powers to cross-border terrorism cases in future, he added.

He called for "an investigation" into who has been buying EU passports to mitigate risks on issues such as money laundering.

The commission would table a new directive on the "ethics" of artificial intelligence in its first 100 days in office and would table a follow-up law on "liability" in cases such as accidents caused by driverless cars, Reynders pledged.

And there was a need to "limit the burden" on small companies arising from new data protection rules, he said.

"It's been quite lively," he said, summing up his three or so hours in the hot seat, which started with a power cut that forced MEPs to move the whole event to another room.

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