Brussels is a nest of spies. In the aftermath of the Cold War, foreign secret services did not downsize activities in the Belgian capital: on the contrary, they redoubled their efforts and the range of their objectives. Brussels-based espionage is now so widespread that the European Commission recently circulated an internal memo to its directors to take precautions against recurrent attempts to “obtain confidential and sensitive documents” concerning Commission activity.
The memo said “some countries, lobbyists, journalists and private organisations are trying to obtain classified information”, adding that “people linked to secret services” are operating undercover as “interns, journalists, EU countries’ attachés to the European Commission and computer technicians”.
“Along with Washington DC and Geneva, Brussels is one of the three key cities for secret services the world over,” explains Kristof Clerix, author of the book Vrij spel. Buitenlandse geheine diensten in België (“Foreign Secret Services in Belgium: Beyond the Law?”) “The methods remain the same as during the Cold War: to gain people’s trust and then exploit it. What has changed is the use of new technologies and the ever-increasing importance of economic issues,” notes Clerix, a staffer for the Belgian journal of international politics MO.
“In political and military terms, Brussels is now even more interesting for spies than it was during the Cold War,” Clerix points out, especially since Brussels-based NATO no longer confines itself to allied defence, but has launched military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan and extended its influence into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The EU, moreover, now has foreign and defence policymaking powers, and is even developing large-scale military and political operations (in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, the Congo, Somalia).
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Besides these garden-variety political and military interests, there are three other factors adding to Brussels’ appeal for foreign intelligence agencies: aerospace and military technology centres located in Belgium; the country’s role as a rearguard of international terrorism; and its sizeable Turkish, Moroccan and central African immigrant communities, which are very active politically – and closely monitored by the governments in their native countries. “Over the past 20 years, Belgium has been a linchpin of international terrorism. It’s a small country, easy to escape from, with a large Muslim immigrant community,” notes Clerix. Furthermore, China is among the most active new players in the Belgian intelligence arena, with a keen interest in procuring scientific and technological know-how, but also in keeping close tabs on the Tibetan question, its political opponents and the Falun Gong religious cult.
Apart from the US monitoring of global banking transactions through the Swift Code database –still ongoing despite widespread uproar –, the most serious recent case of espionage took place at the EU Council of Ministers and went on continuously for eight years, until its detection in 2003. A set of five boxes were installed during the building’s construction to tap the telephone calls of the delegations from Spain, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Austria. Diplomatic sources impugned Israel, but nobody dared to make an official accusation and the Belgian investigators were instructed not to dig too deeply, according to sources close to the case.
With some 56,000 diplomats, 15,000 lobbyists, 1,200 journalists and thousands of foreign interpreters and students, Brussels is the perfect spot for the world’s second-oldest profession – and the place where you’re most likely to be rubbing shoulders with a spy without knowing it.