If China has infiltrated the Maltese embassy in Brussels, then the EU hasn’t been told about it, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said.
On Friday, a report in the French daily Le Monde said that Belgian intelligence sources believed Malta’s embassy in Brussels could have been bugged by Chinese spies. The Maltese government said that wasn’t true.
“I have been informed of this news but I only have the news from the press,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said at the end of an online meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers.
“I don’t have any more information about it, so it’s difficult for me to pronounce about something that I just knew via a press release and if the Belgians have something to tell us, they will, but for the time being [that] hasn’t happened,” he added.
According to the French newspaper, “since the early 2010s” Belgian state security suspected that Chinese secret services used the embassy — located directly opposite from the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters — to spy on the European institutions.
Borrell may not know anything about the latest report, but plenty of people are intrigued.
The spying “could, according to Belgian intelligence, still last today,” said the report.
According to Le Monde, the alarm was sounded by British intelligence who said they believed Chinese secret services were involved in renovation work on the building ahead of its opening in 2007.
Borrell’s relaxed reaction — suggesting the EU would wait to hear from Belgium rather than undertake its own urgent inquiry — could prove risky given recent criticism of the EU’s diplomatic arm for being too soft on China and overly accommodating of Beijing’s wishes.
Last week, the EU’s ambassador to China came under fire for allowing the Chinese government to redact part of an op-ed that was signed by all 27 EU ambassadors in the Chinese capital. The European External Action Service was also accused of softening a report on disinformation at the behest of Chinese diplomats.
Borrell may not know anything about the latest report, but plenty of people are intrigued. Bart Groothuis, a Dutch liberal MEP, tweeted that he’d asked Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis about “the problem of the Chinese state renovating the Maltese embassy” and the response was “it’s on our agenda.”
However, it remains unclear whether the EU will open an independent investigation. The European External Action Service didn’t reply to a question about what, if any, action has been taken. And diplomats stressed that is crucial to understand who was in charge of the critical ICT infrastructure in the embassy, a task that is usually carried out by national agencies or by certified contractors.
In a statement, the Maltese government said it “takes note” of the Le Monde story, stressing that “renovation works carried out in 2007, under a different administration … were carried out at the expense of the Government of Malta” and that “it was only furniture which was donated” by Beijing “in line with the relevant security procedures.”
The article “makes various incorrect allegations that such equipment is being used for illicit purposes,” Valletta said, adding that “the Permanent Representation has been the subject of internal and external audits and found the building to be in the clear” and that “80% of the mentioned furniture has over the past 2 years been disposed of and replaced by new furniture procured from Malta.”
“The Permanent Representation’s security system has been overhauled and improved over the past two years,” the government added.