The EU has a spy problem — here’s why it’s so difficult to catch them
Faced with Russian hostility and Chinese snooping, Belgium has upped its counterintelligence game — but Brussels remains a spies’ playground.
By Barbara Moens
Illustrations by Shane Cluskey for POLITICO
Brussels, as nearly everyone knows, is packed with spies.
They’re hovering at the bar at the think tank networking event. They’re raising their hand in the press room at European Union briefings.
They’re listening in — if a 2019 warning to staff from the European External Action Service is to be believed — at the bars and restaurants near the European Commission’s headquarters.
That the walls have ears has long been a fact of Brussels life. But the fight against espionage is receiving renewed attention as the EU’s spy-catchers redouble their efforts in the face of Russian hostility, Chinese spying and the return of Great Power geopolitics.
The trouble, for those charged with addressing the problem, is just how much can be done about it. And the answer, for now, seems to be: not enough.
To start with, nobody really knows just how many spies are operating in the EU capital. When Belgian security officials are pressed to provide a number they joke that, if anybody can find out, they’d be delighted to know.
Then there’s the number of targets — and the potential for cover stories — the city’s international postings provide.
Brussels hosts not just the EU institutions and NATO but also around 100 other international organizations and 300 foreign diplomatic missions. Together, these employ about 26,000 registered diplomats, according to the Belgian foreign affairs ministry — each one a possible spy.
For a spook, a diplomatic passport is the ultimate cover. Not only is rubbing shoulders with top officials and unearthing information part of the job description, but diplomats are also protected from prosecution under the Vienna Convention. Belgian security officials estimate that, in some embassies, between 10 and 20 percent of the diplomats are intelligence officers.
Jobs in academia or think tanks — places where people are paid to obtain and analyze information — are also attractive covers.
The Free University of Brussels shut down the Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and cultural program, in 2019 after the institute’s director was accused of spying for Beijing. Belgium also expelled a Chinese doctoral student in 2021 because his academic work was a cover for his intelligence work, according to Belgian media.
Journalism is another good cover — providing access to a range of events and press opportunities, as well as a good excuse for being curious and cozying up to key officials. As many as one in five of the Chinese journalists working in Brussels are suspected to be intelligence officers, according to the Belgian security services.
Indeed, so many Chinese spies are suspected of operating in Brussels that some treat it as a kind of a joke.
“It’s a bit like a gaydar,” one former EU diplomat quipped about developing an aptitude for detecting Chinese spies. “Hard to explain, but once you know, it gets easier.”
Spy-catching à la belge
For the most part, catching the spies preying on Brussels’ international community is up to the Belgian government.
The European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament and NATO each have their own security office, working on preventing spies from penetrating their buildings and accessing sensitive documents.
But there’s no formal EU intelligence agency, or even an umbrella organization to coordinate the bloc’s 27 national spy services — unlike, say, for national police forces, where Europol plays a coordinating role. Some have called for Europe to create its answer to the CIA, a single body coordinating the bloc’s espionage efforts, but that remains at best a distant possibility.
“I know that it’s sensitive for some member states, but it would make sense to have an intelligence agency at the European level to defend the strategic interests of Europe,” said Samuel Cogolati, a Belgian parliamentarian from the Green party who has been vocal about the risks of Chinese influence in Belgium.
“The risk of espionage is present and cannot be ignored,” he added.
EU-level coordination is unlikely to happen anytime soon, said a Belgian official who is often in touch with the intelligence agencies. “It’s simply too sensitive,” the official said, with EU governments reluctant to share information.
Instead, the bulk of the responsibility falls on the Belgian State Security Service and military colleagues in the General Intelligence and Security Service — who work with 120 services from 80 countries in their spy hunts.
Belgium has a long history of chasing spies.
In the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s military command structure, forcing the transatlantic defense alliance to relocate its headquarters to Brussels. Fearing Soviet influence, the United States insisted that Belgium boost its counterintelligence efforts.
Belgian state security increased its manpower sixfold, with the Belgian cabinet saying at the time that it wanted to prevent Brussels from becoming “an important espionage center.”
Even so, Brussels was still considered a playground for spies — especially after the end of the Cold War, when counterintelligence became less of a priority. That left Belgium unprepared when it was faced with a major spy scandal in 2003, after bugging devices were discovered in the European Council’s Justus Lipsius building.
In 2016, the country’s intelligence agency was only half as big as those of its EU peers, according to a classified benchmark by the Belgian government, seen by POLITICO.
Since then, calls have grown for extra investments: from the state security service itself, the Belgian judicial authorities, the European Parliament and several Belgian politicians. And new money has been found for counterintelligence efforts.
Upping the game
For decades, EU leaders — and Belgian politicians specifically — dismissed the idea that nefarious actors in places like Beijing, Moscow or Tehran would actually be interested in the technical documents circulating in the corridors of the grey buildings in the European quarter. But recent events have alerted at least some of them to the risks.
“The Europeans were never really strong at counterintelligence,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. “They were very dependent on the U.S. There is a certain mentality change now.”
“It’s a very dangerous world out there,” the U.S. official added, looking over his shoulder in a popular Brussels coffee bar. “Y’all just didn’t realize how careful you ought to be.”
Russia’s aggression since 2014 has heightened awareness of the dangers, and spending has risen in response. After a period in which the agency prioritized counterterrorism — following the Paris and Brussels terror attacks in 2015 and 2016 — the focus is now back on counterintelligence, the Belgian security officials said.
“Belgium has stepped up its game and has become more proactive,” a senior EU official said.
The Belgian government has said it aims to make Brussels a “hostile operating environment” for foreign spies, according to its recent national security strategy.
Earlier this year, Belgium passed a law giving security officials more leeway during their investigations. Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, in charge of state security, said the law will give them “more authority do to interviews, more intrusive methods, but always under the authority of the law.” It will allow, for example, sources of the state security services to take part in banned demonstration to keep an eye on their target.
Belgian’s state security service will almost double its staff to 1,000 people by 2024, in an investment dubbed “historic” by the government. How many of those will work on counterintelligence is confidential, the Belgian security officials said, but the number is going up.
Van Quickenborne is also expected to submit a new law making prosecution easier by broadening the definition of spying. Espionage per se is not classified as a crime in Belgium. Only by communicating classified information of key national interest to a hostile or foreign power do spies put themselves at risk of prosecution.
The former Belgian diplomat Oswald Gantois for example was investigated for leaking information to the Russian secret services but only convicted in 2018 of illegal association with the purpose of committing forgery.
Some, however, worry that Belgium’s efforts still fall far short.
A second Belgian official stressed that, while more money is going to the Belgian state security service, and counterintelligence in particular, the country can’t compete with the resources of foreign powers like China.
“Let’s be honest,” said Kenneth Lasoen, an expert on Belgian intelligence at Antwerp University. “A hostile operating environment is Moscow with the FSB. It’s not Brussels with the Belgian State Security Service.”
Catch and release
If Belgium is ramping up its spy-busting, why aren’t the state security service’s efforts making the news more often?
Espionage convictions often make headlines both in the U.S. and other EU countries. Just before the summer, Estonia sentenced a women to more than eight years, finding her guilty of spying for China. A German reserve soldier was convicted for passing on information to Moscow. And in Stockholm, two Swedes are currently on trial for spying for Russia.
Belgium takes a quieter approach, for a variety of reasons.
First, unable to prosecute and still with limited funding, Belgian counterintelligence agents have to prioritize. The more money you spend, the more spies you’ll find and so the more money you’ll again have to spend, the second Belgian official said.
So while spying from “unfriendly” countries, like Russia, Iran or China, gets more scrutiny, Belgian counterintelligence agents are still likely to turn a blind eye toward espionage by allies.
“It’s a question of priorities,” the first Belgian official said. “I’d rather have the Americans or the Germans eavesdropping than the Chinese or the Russians.”
The Belgian intelligence services also tend to shun the spotlight. Spies who have been caught might never find out, the security officials said. Prosecution — even if it were possible — is like dropping a bomb, the security officials said; it damages diplomatic relations.
Instead, busted spies are often simply told to leave the country. This happens routinely, but the process mostly happens discreetly via their embassies. Expulsions are rarely made public, as was the case when 21 Russian diplomats were kicked out after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Sometimes, Belgium helps allied countries catch spies on its territory. In 2018, Belgian police arrested a Chinese man the U.S. suspected of spying on General Electric Aviation. “He was then extradited to the United States, they’re very thankful for that,” Van Quickenborne said. The man was later convicted of conspiracy to commit economic espionage.
In other cases, Belgium might inform a spy’s interlocutors, so that access to information dries up.
Rarely, suspected spies are simply called out. In 2020, news broke that Fraser Cameron, a former U.K. diplomat and ex-European Commission official turned think tanker, was being investigated on suspicion of passing sensitive information to China. Cameron denies the accusation and has not faced charges.
When accusations of spying do make the news, they don’t just flush out possible agents, the security officials said. They raise awareness about the problem — which is in itself beneficial.
“Realizing that espionage is not science fiction, but a tangible and real risk, is the first step to protect ourselves against it,” Nicolas Fierens Gevaert, a spokesperson for the Belgian foreign affairs ministry said.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Stuart Lau and Ryan Heath contributed reporting.