EU antitrust officials trapped by Belgian April spoof news

1 April.jpg

In a request for information regarding new investments at Charleroi airport near Brussels, the European Commission refers to the construction of a second runway, a false news story published by a Belgian website as a 1 April spoof.

In its request to the Belgian authorities, the Commission mentions an article according to which Charleroi airport plans to build a new runway. This article is however an April spoof, published by the little-known website Pagtour.

Jean-Jacques Clocquet, CEO of Charleroi airport, expressed dismay as to the professional standards of the EU executive in investigating cases of state aid.

“One can ask oneself questions about the seriousness with which some officials in charge of dossiers work at the Commission”, Clocquet was quoted by the Belgian press as saying.

According to him, there has never been any talk about building a new runway.

“This was a 2013 April spoof and the Commission builds on this text to pin us unnecessarily,” he said, calling on the EU executive to stop harassing Charleroi airport.

Charleroi airport, also known as Brussels South, has come under scrutiny by the Commission's competition department. Charleroi airport is a low-cost alternative to Brussels’s main Zaventem airport, which grew in the late 1990s with the arrival of low-cost carrier Ryanair. The EU executive objected to the assistance provided by the Walloon government to the airport, arguing the facility is owned by the Wallonia regional government and thus the benefits could be considered state aid.

In 2008 the EU General Court decided that the Commission case against Charleroi airport should be annulled on procedural grounds. In 2012 the Commission re-opened the case.

The website Pagtour appears to be delighted by the developments.

“Who said that Pagtour was not read by the higher authorities that govern us? And that our website wasn’t influential? An article by [editor] Pierre Proneuve caught all the attention of [the Commission’s] Directorate General Competition to the extent that they summoned Charleroi Airport. But the bad news for them was that it was an April spoof,” the website wrote.

Pagtour added that every 1 April its editor publishes a false news story, his inspiration for 2013 having been the Charleroi airport. As ‘safeguards’ the article mentions wacky details, such as a secret airport commission the members of which drink only Spa water and always meet in a fish restaurant. But apparently even this did not help Commission officials to detect the spoof.

The EU executive wasn’t the only one to be trapped. According to Pagtour, the Commission’s letter was first sent to the Belgian federal government, which re-assigned it to the Walloon government, which finally re-sent it to Charleroi airport. Nobody apparently detected the spoof.

“This speaks for itself about the sense of humour, not to say the insight, of those who govern us”, Pagtour concludes.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the press reports, Commission spokesperson Chantal Hughes said that the EU executive had based itself on a statement by Walloon minister André  Antoine regarding Charleroi airport, made on 11 April.

The statement however doesn’t mention a second runway. Asked by EURACTIV if the Commission letter makes mention of a second runway, Chantal Hughes said she could not provide details as its text was confidential. 

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