Home Society Brussels’ spy problem is the tip of the iceberg, says Belgian justice minister
Brussels’ spy problem is the tip of the iceberg, says Belgian justice minister

Brussels’ spy problem is the tip of the iceberg, says Belgian justice minister

by host

In Brussels, spies are everywhere.

That’s according to Belgian Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt, who warned in an interview that scandals such as Qatargate and Chinagate are only the tip of the espionage iceberg in the Belgian capital.

Brussels hosts not just the EU institutions and NATO but also around 100 other international organizations and some 300 foreign diplomatic missions. Belgium’s spy-catchers, who are responsible for keeping those European and NATO organizations safe, are increasingly faced with Russian hostility, Chinese spying, and the return of hard-core geopolitics, Van Tigchelt said.

The problem is of course far from new, given Brussels’ role on the international stage. “It is said that espionage is the second oldest profession in the world,” he said. Therefore, European coordination is key and continuously improving, said Van Tigchelt, who currently chairs meetings of the EU’s justice ministers as his country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

Because of the spying threats, the Belgian government has doubled the manpower of the state security services up to about 1,000 staffers. Its priority has also partly shifted from counterterrorism — following the Paris and Brussels terror attacks in 2015 and 2016 — to counterintelligence. Belgium has also invested in liaison officers in Washington, The Hague and Morocco.

Evolving threats

Belgium has had to deal with several high-profile spying scandals of late. There’s Qatargate, in which suspects linked to the European Parliament are alleged to have accepted money or gifts in exchange for doing the bidding of Qatar. Morocco and Mauritania were also allegedly suspected of being behind cash-for-influence operations in the EU Parliament. There’s also Chinagate, centered around Frank Creyelman of the far-right Vlaams Belang party. Creyelman, who came under fire in December following the leaked chats between him and a Chinese spy, is said to have been influencing Belgian politics in exchange for bribes for more than three years. 

There are other potential threats as 2024 will be a key year, with both Belgium and the EU heading to the polls. As a result, intelligence services have to prepare for hacking and disinformation, said Van Tigchelt, a Belgian liberal who is also deputy prime minister. “It is not impossible that at some point one of these regimes that is not so close to us will try to falsify the elections by hacking into the system. We have to be aware of that, as it is possible.”

“The geopolitical context compels us to be less naïeve,” Van Tigchelt said, also pointing to Russia. In total, Belgium has now expelled 41 Russians diplomats for alleged espionage. “Russia has not just invaded Ukraine, but is also involved in hybrid warfare … also here.”

For any democracy, finding the right balance on security is difficult, Van Tigchelt said. “If Belgium decides tomorrow to cut €10 billion from social welfare to put it into security, that’s fine with me, but those are choices you have to make. A democracy abiding by the rule of law is to some extent always vulnerable.”

In the coming weeks, the Belgian parliament is set to approve new rules that will make it easier to punish those caught spying. The current provisions date back to the 1930s and don’t classify espionage as a crime. This made it, for example, more difficult to prosecute Creyelman, who has been expelled by Vlaams Belang party as part of the Chinagate scandal.

While Belgium’s espionage rules will become stricter, Van Tigchelt warned it remains difficult to prove espionage in front of a judge, as classified information can often not be used in open court proceedings. For the minister, conducting criminal investigations in court is just one of the ways to create a “hostile working environment” for spies in Belgium. Other ways include expelling diplomats for their involvement in espionage, withdrawing work permits, and closing down research institutes linked to espionage.

To create such a hostile working environment for spies, Belgium should discuss pivoting more from defensive counterintelligence to offensive methods, Van Tigchelt said.

Belgium has had to deal with several high-profile spying scandals of late, including Qatargate, in which suspects linked to the European Parliament are alleged to have accepted money or gifts in exchange for doing the bidding of Qatar | Leon Neal/Getty Images

He added that Belgium’s intelligence services are an essential buffer “against the kind of dangers we are talking about. I am convinced of the need for a strong state security … that can be more offensive than … today. As far as I am concerned, that is the next debate we should have.”

However, everything will happen within a rule of law context, the justice minister stressed, as well as the limits of what the Belgian intelligence services can do. While they can work together with foreign intelligence services, the Belgians cannot perform any operations abroad, Van Tigchelt said.

“There will be no James Bond situations.”

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