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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa O'Carroll in Brussels

Belgium investigates alleged Russian payments to MEPs

Belgium's prime minister Alexander De Croo behind an EU flag
Alexander De Croo: ‘[Russia’s] objective is to help elect more pro-Russian candidates in the European parliament … it’s very clear.’ Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Prosecutors in Belgium have opened an investigation into alleged payments by Russia to members of the European parliament following an intelligence operation in Brussels, the Belgian prime minister has revealed.

Alexander De Croo said Moscow’s objective was to weaken support for Ukraine in Europe.

“Belgian intelligence services have confirmed the existence of pro-Russian interference networks with activities in several European countries and also here in Belgium. According to our intelligence service, the objectives of Moscow are very clear,” he said. “The objective is to help elect more pro-Russian candidates in the European parliament and to reinforce a certain pro-Russian narrative in that institution. It’s very clear.”

The move heightens concerns that the Kremlin will attempt to interfere with EU elections in June and comes after the discovery by the Czech authorities of a Russian network trying to influence the outcome of the ballot.

“The [Czech] investigation shows that Moscow has approached European members of parliament and has also paid European members of parliament in order to promote a Russian agenda here,” De Croo said.

“Weakened European support for Ukraine serves Russia on the battlefield. And that is the real aim of what has been covered in the last weeks. These are very serious concerns.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office said the investigation was opened on Thursday under article 135bis of the Belgian penal code.

De Croo said he could not name names because this remained confidential and classified. But he said that upon receipt of the intelligence he was in contact with the Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, after the discovery in March of a Russian disinformation operation there aimed at influencing the outcome of European elections.

The network operated the Voice of Europe media site registered in Prague, which had sanctions imposed on it by Czech authorities.

The same week, the Polish security agency ABW carried out searches which resulted in the discovery of €48,500 and €36,000 in two separate raids.

A Polish citizen was accused and charged with alleged bribery of European parliamentarians to build a Russian “zone of influence in Europe”.

De Croo said even if payments had been made in other jurisdictions, prosecutions in Belgian were possible.

“Our judicial authorities have now confirmed that this interference is subject to a prosecution. The cash payments did not take place in Belgium. But the interference does … We have a new national law which came into force last week. And it explicitly targets interference. So this is what we are doing on the Belgian level.”

De Croo said he would be discussing the matter with EU leaders at a summit in Brussels next week to see if the mandate of Olaf, the EU anti-fraud investigations unit, needed to be broadened.

• This article was amended on 12 April 2024. A previous version said the Voice of Europe website was closed down by the Czech authorities. In fact, two of its senior figures had sanctions imposed on them but the website remains live.

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