Home Society The crime-writing Belgian ‘sheriff’ fighting EU corruption
The crime-writing Belgian ‘sheriff’ fighting EU corruption

The crime-writing Belgian ‘sheriff’ fighting EU corruption

by host

One thing European parliamentarians should know about the man driving allegations of Qatari cash and influence peddling at the heart of the EU: he won’t stop.

Also, they might end up as characters in a crime thriller, written by the person who locked them up. 

Belgian investigative magistrate Michel Claise, whose role is similar to that of a U.S. public prosecutor, was there on Saturday night, alongside the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola, when police raided the home of Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella. On Monday, as POLITICO reporters tried to find out which offices in the Parliament in Brussels were being raided in the escalating Qatari probe, security officers told them the “magistrate” was working inside.

In a series of raids that continued Tuesday, Claise and his team have secured €1.5 million in cash and arrested six people on preliminary charges of corruption, money laundering and criminal organization. One suspect is Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP who was one of the European Parliament’s vice presidents until she was stripped of that title Tuesday. The probe centers on a group who may have used their positions in parliament to promote Qatari interests. Kaili has said she is innocent and is due in court on Wednesday.

If others are involved, they would do well to worry. In the endless corridors of the Palais de Justice in Brussels, Claise is known as ‘The Sheriff’ for his relentless pursuit of his targets. Perhaps most concerning for any MEPs and aides who may still be his crosshairs, is how much he appears to be enjoying himself. “Bingo!” was his response to one of the successful raids, he said in an interview with Franceinfo: “That’s a lot of fun.”

It’s this “exuberance,” that makes Claise stand out, said John Crombez, who was Belgium’s Secretary of State for combating fraud between 2011 and 2014.

“Lots of others in this field are quiet and modest, he is not. And he shouldn’t be, I’ve never experienced that as grandstanding,” Crombez told POLITICO. “He’s like an investigative judge entertainer. That’s fantastic. He just waltzes over everything, and it all comes out of these deeply rooted social concerns. That’s what makes him so exceptional.”

A revolutionary humanist

Claise’s biography reads like a crime-fighting prosecutor from central casting. His youthful parents abandoned him as a baby in a basket at his grandparents’ bakery in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, he told Le Soir in 2020. He grew up cutting bread before school and scrambling to read as many books as he could. His father never wanted to be part of his life and his relationship with his mother, who is now dead, was “extremely hard.”

He cites French revolutionary humanist values as his guiding principles. For him, financial crime has destroyed fundamental aspects of society. “White-collar crime is the cancer of democracy,” Claise wrote in one of his books, Le Forain (The Showman).

At the fashionable bookshop Filigranes, which serves the EU’s intellectual elite, you can find Claise’s novelizations of his own crime-fighting. “He has two parts to his life: personal and professional,” said the owner of the bookshop Marc Filipson, a friend. “When he is here, he has no phone, nothing.”

Claise’s charge sheet is a who’s who of Belgian white collar crime across the past two decades: it includes local banks Fortis and Belgolaise and insurance company AGF, but also multinational companies and Belgian nobility. In 2019, he forced the U.K. bank HSBC to pay a Belgian record penalty of €295 million for tax evasion, money laundering and other assorted crimes. Another nickname for Claise is ‘Mr Hundred Millions,’ because of all the cash he has hauled back for the state.

“He did not care at all about the order of magnitude of his opponents,” said Crombez. “That’s how he operates: he doesn’t get scared easily.” 

Operation Zero

Claise is known in Belgium for following through on cases, even those that are highly sensitive. His pursuit against money laundering gangs in Belgian football clubs, dubbed “Operation Zero,” shook up the entire football world, which is deeply intertwined with Belgian business and politics. Touchy diplomacy hasn’t perturbed him either, like issuing an international arrest warrant for the head of the Libyan Investment Authority because of their alleged links with Euroclear, a financial institution headquartered in Brussels.

One of his biggest operations was overseeing the dismantling of encrypted service SKY ECC, which led to the arrests of dozens of drug traffickers and suspected criminals. The bust was the largest-ever by police and prosecutors against drug cartels in the country, which is a key traffic point for cocaine in Europe.

Claise’s dramatic intervention has left the European institutions headquartered in Brussels scrambling to explain why it took a Belgian official to uncover corruption at the core of European democracy. A fleet of investigations is being launched amid calls for institutional reforms, including by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

His character and his public touting of his achievements are very un-Belgian, as Belgians are generally taught to be humble about any individual achievements. As the EU’s host country, it sometimes feels like Belgium is the David fighting the giants of Russian or Chinese espionage, terrorism or corruption in the international institutions they host.

Now, the notoriety attracted by the investigation is giving the Belgians something to be proud of in the eyes of the world. For days, Belgian media have been all over the case, feasting on minute details — including how long it took to count the vast quantity of seized cash — some of which look like they could be straight out of one of Claise’s own crime novels. 

“Belgian justice is doing what at first sight the European Parliament hasn’t done,” the country’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters in his first comments on the scandal on Tuesday. “The European Parliament has a lot of means to regulate itself. It turns out that this is largely a system of self-regulation based on voluntary efforts, which has clearly not been sufficient.”

But that peacocking would be ironic to Claise, who complained in October that Belgium’s police are under-resourced, fighting a war against modern, high-tech corruption using “catapults.” Earlier in the year, he said the Belgian government was “on Xanax rather than Viagra.” Now it’s the European Parliament he has found dozing on the job.

Clothilde Goujard and Pieter Haeck contributed reporting.

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