Belgium probes top EU think-tanker for links to China

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A former U.K. diplomat and ex-European Commission official who runs a Brussels think tank is being investigated by Belgian security services on suspicion of passing sensitive information to China — allegations that he denies.

Fraser Cameron, who directs the EU-Asia Centre, rejected as “absurd” the investigation into his alleged contacts with two Chinese journalists accredited in Brussels who — according to Belgian security officials speaking on condition of anonymity — also work for the Chinese Ministry of State Security and the Chinese military. The Belgian officials who spoke to POLITICO also briefed Belgian newspapers De Standaard and L’Avenir on the case.

It is unclear where the investigation might lead, since the charges he might face were not specified and espionage — which was cited by the Belgian officials — is not treated as a crime under Belgian law.

According to a person close to the case, the federal prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into Cameron, though the prosecutor’s office itself declined to comment. The case was opened on the basis of the Belgian state security investigation that judged Cameron’s alleged activities could constitute a risk for European officials, though they did not specify what kind of risk he might pose.

Contacted by POLITICO for comment, Cameron said in an email that the allegations “are without foundation.”

He stressed that he has “a wide range of Chinese contacts as part of my duties with the EU-Asia Centre and some of them may have a double function,” but added: “I retired 15 years ago from official employment and have zero access to any sensitive information.”

Cameron said his lawyer was not aware of any case having been opened, adding: “The allegations themselves are obviously damaging but they really are absurd if you just stop to think about them for a minute.”

Cameron, who according to his entry on the EU-Asia Centre’s website has “lived and worked in Belgium for 20 years” and is “a visiting professor at several universities in Asia,” is suspected by Belgian intelligence of receiving thousands of euros for providing confidential — but not necessarily classified — political and economic information to the Chinese regarding European institutions.

In a separate email to L’Avenir, seen by POLITICO, Cameron said the EU-Asia Centre receives “a small annual grant” from the Chinese diplomatic mission to the EU, to help organize events on EU-China relations. “This is the only funding received from the Chinese,” he said.

Cameron added, in his response to L’Avenir, that the EU-Asia Centre’s recent activities, including a webinar on this week’s virtual EU-China summit, demonstrated “that we are highly critical of China!”

‘Close to Beijing’

POLITICO was told the names of the two Chinese journalists allegedly involved, but was unable to confirm their status independently.

Belgian security officials said the suspect activities had been going on for a number of years, but they would not say whether that included Cameron’s time at the European Commission, before his retirement in 2006. One official in the Commission, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cameron was known to be “very close to Beijing.”

Since espionage is not classified as a crime in Belgium, public prosecutors have long called for an update of the country’s law on espionage, which dates back to the 1930s.

That means prosecutors may have to identify other criminal offenses if they want to press charges — which happened in the case of former Belgian diplomat Oswald Gantois. Investigated for leaking information to Russian secret services throughout his career, he was convicted in 2018 of illegal association with the purpose of committing forgery.

Public prosecutors have cited Belgium’s role as a diplomatic hub, hosting the EU institutions and NATO headquarters, as justification for broadening the definition of espionage in national law to facilitate prosecution.

The current federal justice minister, Koen Geens from the Flemish Christian Democratic party CD&V, is trying to push an update of the espionage law through parliament but has made little progress because of an impasse in forming a government since late 2018.

“The minister and CD&V have been asking for a long time to vote on the proposal,” said a spokesperson for the minister.

Earlier this year, German prosecutors revealed that they suspected another former EU official of passing information to China. German national Gerhard Sabathil, a diplomat turned lobbyist, denied the allegations and has so far not been arrested nor charged.

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