Belgian Commissioner-pick faces corruption probe

Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence Didier Reynders, Brussels, Belgium, 27 February 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The man Ursula von der Leyen chose to be her rule of law guard dog in the incoming European Commission is facing allegations of corruption and money-laundering, according to Belgian media. This could cast doubt on another member of her proposed college before all candidates are vetted by the European Parliament.

Didier Reynders, currently serving as foreign minister in Belgium’s caretaker government, is the subject of a preliminary inquiry by public prosecutors, newspapers L’Echo and De Tijd reported on Saturday (14 September).

Revelations reportedly revealed by a former secret service agent have prompted a look into how public contracts have been awarded on Reynders’ watch. They include the building of Belgium’s embassy in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Reynders said on Sunday that he was “not aware of an investigation” but that his legal representatives were looking for “clarity […] as soon as possible”. A spokesperson for the minister suggested the former agent is only trying to do Reynders harm.

The ongoing inquiry will decide whether there is enough evidence to bring charges against the minister or any other involved parties.

Belgian king names pointmen to help forge new government

King Philippe of Belgium on Thursday (30 May) tasked two politicians with exploring ways that a new government can be formed following elections in which a far-right party scored a surprise second place.

Ursula’s headache

Von der Leyen named Reynders on 10 September as her choice to oversee rule of law matters in the EU. 

Czech Commissioner nominee Věra Jourová was initially tipped to get the job but it was ultimately deemed too politically risky to entrust a representative of a Central or Eastern European country with the position. 

Jourová will, however, coordinate Reynders’ work as part of her vice-presidency remit.

The Brief – Jourová and Reynders: EU's good cop – bad cop?

Now that we know the portfolio distribution of the future EU executive led by Ursula von der Leyen, one of the big surprises was splitting the rule of law portfolio between the two names that were circulating: the Czech Věra Jourová and the Belgian Didier Reynders.

That is dependent on the European Parliament vetting each of the 26 designated Commissioners and a final vote on von der Leyen’s administration in late October, before it takes office on 1 November.

Should the investigation into Reynders’ alleged corruption and money-laundering activities proceed in earnest, MEPs could refuse to give their blessing for his appointment.

Though Parliament cannot single-handedly block individual candidates, its opinion is always taken into consideration before a new Commission is anointed, given its veto power over its final formation.

Some of Reynders’ potential future colleagues will have to wait until the Parliament has issued its appraisals before planning beyond 31 October, given the doubts surrounding their respective candidacies.

Hungary’s László Trócsányi was allocated the enlargement gig but the decision has prompted criticism across the board, thanks to Budapest’s slide on rule of law matters. A pillar of the job is convincing EU candidate countries to improve their judicial and legal systems. 

The Brief – Ursula’s gambit

Hungary’s pick for the next European Commission was always going to cause controversy but the job offered by Ursula von der Leyen to László Trócsányi has only kicked the hornet’s nest. However, Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor could well be a few moves ahead of us.

Poland’s Janusz Wojciechowski is newly the subject of an OLAF inquiry into his MEP expenses, although the agricultural Commissioner-in-waiting insists he “has nothing to hide”.

Parliamentary hearings are scheduled to start 30 September and conclude with a final vote on 23 October. It is still unclear whether relevant committees will quiz the three executive vice-presidents or if they will be grilled by the EU house’s conference of presidents instead.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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