Spy probe shakes up Brussels lobbying culture

Just a reminder that ‘old-fashioned’ espionage still goes on…:

News of an investigation into a former senior EU diplomat suspected of spying for China is sending shockwaves through Brussels’ closely interlinked circles of lobbyists, officials and politicians.

While no one has been charged in the probe in Germany and Belgium, officials and lobbyists in the EU capital are already discussing the potential impact of the bombshell revelation that an EU veteran employed by a lobbying firm could have been passing sensitive information to Beijing.

They expected the news to prompt the EU to tighten weak security protocols and improve its rulebook on retired European Commission employees working for lobbies — a practice highlighted by the German-Belgian probe.

One EU official said the upside of the investigation was that it “would drive home to some that the Chinese interference problem needs to be taken seriously.”

Sven Giegold, a German Green in the European Parliament, said that the investigation, including searches in Brussels and across Germany, could serve as a clarion call to toughen the rules on ex-EU officials moving on to work as lobbyists.

German magazine Der Spiegel broke the news Wednesday that German prosecutors are investigating the former diplomat and two other people, who work for another lobbying outfit.

“We need common and enforceable rules on revolving doors in EU institutions,” Giegold said. “The current staff rules are extremely weak and are hardly enforced.”

German magazine Der Spiegel broke the news Wednesday that German prosecutors are investigating the former diplomat and two other people, who work for another lobbying outfit. The German Federal Prosecutor’s Office confirmed it is investigating three people suspected of working as secret agents. Investigators carried out searches of properties in Berlin, Brussels and the German regional states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office said, according to German news agency DPA.

Spiegel did not name any of the suspects or their employers. However, the lobbying firm of the ex-diplomat said its employee vehemently denies the allegations against him, Spiegel reported.

An official following the case confirmed key details of the investigation to POLITICO and said the probe was initiated by German authorities.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing on May 24, 2018 | Pool photo by Jason Lee/Getty Images

Chinese new year

The investigation puts EU-China relations under stress at the start of what European diplomats had hoped would be a crunch year to reshape relations in terms of trade, technology and competition policies.

The EU expects to hold a summit in Beijing at the end of March, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is holding another summit in Leipzig with European leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping later in the year. While Leipzig was supposed to be the moment where the veteran chancellor hoped to cement her legacy with a trade agreement, the focus could now well shift to security.

“As long as our rules allow selling off contacts and sensitive information to the Chinese, we really have an issue. This severely puts into question European foreign policy and industrial policy. We urgently need stronger rules on this,” said Daniel Freund, another MEP from the Greens.

Fears about Beijing’s networks of espionage, propaganda and cyberattacks have been mounting for years.

A report by Czech think tank Sinopsis late last year said the Chinese Communist Party’s “influence operations in Europe are vast and remain largely unscrutinized,” but described a “friendship group” of members of the European Parliament that, according to the think tank, “effectively functions as a proxy for Chinese Communist Party’s domestic and external propaganda.”

At the end of 2018, the U.K. and the U.S. charged Chinese state-backed hackers with stealing intellectual property. The EU, too, has warned about Chinese espionage on trade secrets in internal documents in the past. A recent trade mission of Belgian officials, ministers and a member of its royal family experienced up to 135 attacks per hour to hack into phones and networks, local media reported.

“Even if these are only allegations, it creates the perception that everyone in Brussels who’s involved in Chinese relations has a John Le Carré-like mystique surrounding them” — Huawei official

Telecoms are an area of particularly tense European-Chinese relations as the EU is reviewing its security policies for telecom networks to lessen the risks associated with Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

The new allegations of espionage pose a challenge to the ambitions of Chinese companies and public affairs firms looking to improve cooperation between the EU and China.

“Even if these are only allegations, it creates the perception that everyone in Brussels who’s involved in Chinese relations has a John Le Carré-like mystique surrounding them,” said an official at Huawei, the 5G equipment-maker, which is the biggest Chinese corporate lobbying spender in EU.

Huawei, like other Chinese companies, has faced longstanding concerns that it poses a security risk because of its ties to Chinese authorities. The company spent many millions of euros in 2019 fighting back against such concerns.

Public affairs professionals in Brussels involved in lobbying for Chinese firms expect the new allegations to seriously damage their work.

“It’s really a mess,” one prominent lobbyist said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “China wasn’t even on the radar a few years ago. Now it’s getting on the radar, but in the wrong way.”

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