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Belgium probes top EU think-tanker for links to China

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A former UK 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, as reported  by Barbara Moens in POLITICO.

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.

Belgium

Belgium tightens COVID-19 measures, hopes to avoid lockdown

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Belgium, one of the European countries worst hit by COVID-19, has tightened curbs on social contacts by banning fans from sports matches and limiting numbers in cultural spaces, while officials in Wallonia imposed a stricter night curfew on residents, write and

The local government in the French-speaking region, among the hardest-hit parts of the country, has told people to stay at home from 10pm to 6am and made remote working mandatory for students until Nov. 19.

Belgium, which has Europe’s second highest infection rate per capita after the Czech Republic, had already closed cafes, bars and restaurants and imposed a shorter night curfew. New infections hit a peak of 10,500 on Thursday.

But the government has resisted calls from medical experts to order a new lockdown to avoid causing more economic pain.

The restrictions - running until 19 November - also include stricter social distancing. They are intended to avoid crowding on public transport, and impose a limit of 200 people in theatres, concert halls and cinemas.

“We are pressing the pause button...we have a single objective, which is to limit contacts that are not strictly necessary,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told a news conference. “There’s no law that can stop the virus, the only ones who can stop it are us...all together.”

Epidemiologist Marius Gilbert wrote on Twitter that hospitals were on the brink of collapse.

Calling for people to act responsibly, he said the protective mask was the “condom” of the coronavirus - “something...we have in our pocket and that we take out when we love or respect the person we are talking to”.

Belgium is expected to record a daily rate of 20,000 new infections by next week, a spokesperson for the Sciensano health institute said.

The nation of 11 million people had 1,013 new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents over the past week and its death tally since the pandemic began is 10,588, according to official figures.

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Coronavirus likely to affect Belgium Poppy Remembrance appeal

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It is feared that the health pandemic could affect this year's Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Belgium. The coronavirus crisis is likely to have a financial impact on the local Poppy Appeal, given that it is feared the public may well be cautious about the risks of touching collection tins and the poppies themselves. 

Even so, the Legion's Brussels branch plans to go ahead with holding a social distanced/masked ceremony at Heverlee Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Leuven on 8 November (11am).

This will be in the presence of British Ambassador Martin Shearman, UK Ambassador to NATO Dame Sarah Macintosh, as well as top brass from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Belgium.

Belgian rules currently allow for the event to proceed.

The Brussels branch, which celebrates its centenary in 2022, will be represented by Zoe White MBE (pictured), a former major in the British Army and the first female chair in its history.

White joined the international staff at NATO HQ in Brussels as an executive officer in 2017. She said she moved to NATO "to develop my political knowledge of defence and security matters and, most importantly, to continue to serve in an organization whose ethos and values I truly believe in."

She entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2000, after a short stint in her home unit, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. She was commissioned into the Royal Signals and served in the Army for 17 years.

White has considerable operational experience. She deployed to Kosovo on Op Agricola, Iraq on Op Telic (three times), Afghanistan on Op Herrick (three times) and Northern Ireland on Op Banner (for two years).

She specialized in providing lifesaving measures to counter radio controlled explosive devices and was awarded the MBE for her work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

During her last nine-month operational tour of Afghanistan she was embedded with the US Marine Corps and among other tasks, was responsible for mentoring and training the communications directors across the local uniformed services (Army, Police, Border Patrol) in Helmand - a role, she says, that taught her much about the value of authentic dialogue (and left her with a love of cardamom tea and dates).

Looking back at her military career, she says: "I was privileged to command soldiers who were technical experts and absolute forces of nature. It was a joy to serve with them."

A self-confessed "defence geek", Zoe studied Battlespace Technology at Cranfield University where she expanded her knowledge of heavy armour and "exquisite" weaponry.  She is currently studying for an MBA in her spare time.

Zoe, whose husband David is also a retired Royal Signals officer ,was elected Chair of the Brussels branch of the Royal British Legion in September 2020, succeeding Commodore Darren Bone RN. She is the first female chair of the branch since its launch in 1922.

The Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII met founding members of the branch in June 1922.

White adds, “I am delighted to take custody of the Branch chair role. It is both a way to meaningfully continue my service to veterans and those still serving, and to continue the tradition of Remembrance in a country where so many made the ultimate sacrifice for the lives we live today.”

Branch website & contact details. 

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Commission approves €15.8 million Belgian scheme to support hotels and aparthotels in Brussels in context of coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission approved a €15.8 million Belgian scheme to support hotels and aparthotels in the Brussels-Capital Region in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The measure was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. The public support will take the form of direct grants of €20,000 minimum or €200,000 maximum per hotel or aparthotel. The grants aim to provide support to affected hotels and aparthotels for lost income and ongoing operating costs, such as costs for insurance, maintenance and security.

The purpose of the measure is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing because of the restrictive measures imposed by the government to limit the spread of the virus and to ensure continuity of their economic activity. The Commission found that the Belgian measure is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the support (i) will not exceed €800,000 per company; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2020.

On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.58763 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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