The magnitude of the probe into allegations of bribery involving members of the European parliament is of a scale usually seen in major investigations into organised crime, said Belgium’s justice minister.
Vincent Van Quickenborne told the Financial Times that the investigation, led by the Belgian federal prosecutor, involved “interference by state actors in the heart of our European democracy” of a magnitude Belgium had not seen before. He added that the facts of the case, which has shaken the Brussels establishment, still needed to be proven.
The investigation, which began in March 2021, has so far led to the arrest of four suspects, who have been charged with corruption, money laundering and participation in an organised crime group. Police have seized €1.5mn in cash from three of those suspects’ locations. The case implicates lawmakers, non-governmental organisations, and foreign powers Qatar and Morocco.
“We know of cases of interference by state actors that try to interfere in our democratic system. And also organised crime,” Van Quickenborne told the FT. “But really, bribing members of a parliament, especially the European parliament, that is quite unique for our civil intelligence service.”
Belgium’s intelligence service was co-operating with several other European intelligence agencies on this case, leading to comparisons with a joint probe last year by police in Belgium, France and the Netherlands to crack the encryption software SKY ECC used by drug lords and other criminals to communicate without their messages getting intercepted.
“I could say that what SKY ECC is for the fight against organised crime . . . this case could be the same for the fight against foreign interference by bribery,” the minister said.
The SKY ECC probe led to more than 1,000 arrests in Belgium alone, with hundreds of suspects in prison, and is one of the reasons Van Quickenborne is currently under police protection. Earlier this year, the justice minister received death threats and an attempt to kidnap him was foiled by police.
Van Quickenborne said the current corruption investigation showed that Belgium, which hosts several EU institutions, as well as Nato, does not give “free passes” to alleged criminals. “For us, safeguarding the rule of law is the most important thing,” he said, adding that this meant the investigation should go on without any “interference whatsoever” from the Belgian government.
“This is a very specific case of interference by bribery and it is quite a novelty for our country,” he said, adding that the last big political corruption scandal involving foreign actors was in the 1990s, when several Belgian politicians — including then-Nato secretary-general Willy Claes — were convicted for taking bribes from Italian aircraft maker Agusta.
Van Quickenborne said co-operation with the European parliament had so far been mostly about security, particularly since the 2016 terror attacks at Brussels airport and a metro station in the European quarter. “Now we should secure ourselves against organised crime and interference by bribery,” he said.
He said that the Belgian government has recently invested in more staff and electronic equipment for the intelligence service, as well as the anti-corruption unit with federal police.
“We have given all the possible means and personnel for the case,” he said. “Every stone will be lifted and nothing will stay untouched.”