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From Andrew Rettman, EUobserver: For many in the age of foreign policy "resets" and "win-win" talks, espionage sounds like a thing of the past.
But for Alain Winants, the head of Belgium's state security service, the VSSE, the EU capital currently has more spy activity than almost any other city in the world.
Winants told EUobserver in a rare interview with international media that "we are not speaking in the dozens, we are speaking in the hundreds, several hundreds" of foreign intelligence officers and agents in Brussels.
"In Belgium, espionage, Russian espionage and from other countries, like the Chinese, but also others, [is] at the same level as the Cold War ... We are a country with an enormous concentration of diplomats, businessmen, international institutions - Nato, European institutions. So for an intelligence officer, for a spy, this is a kindergarten. It's the place to be."
He also named Iran as a culprit. . . .
He said spies usually pretend to be diplomats, journalists, lobbyists, businessmen or students.
Apart from intelligence-gathering, they try to influence decisions made by senior EU or Nato staff.
They make friends with officials at seminars or social events in the EU capital. EU security staff use an acronym for the kind of people they target: Mice (money, ideology, compromise, ego) - people who are greedy or in debt, who have radical ideas, who have guilty secrets or who want to be James Bond.
In some cases, spies initiate contact in Brussels but wait until the target gets a new post in their home country before trying to recruit them. . . .
The VSSE, Belgium's equivalent of the UK's MI5, is mainly responsible for counter-terrorism. But part of its job is to protect the international institutions on its turf.
It works with internal EU and Nato security staff, EU countries' intelligence services, the Belgian federal police and Belgium's military intelligence, the ADIV, to hunt out spooks.
"The competence of the security services of the EU institutions is limited to their premises. So once the activity takes place outside the EU premises, the VSSE is in full competence," Winants explained. . . .
The VSSE chief said his service is "relatively small given the large scope of threats we have to deal with."
He said EU and Nato security services are also "understaffed." But he noted that Nato "by its history has maybe a more security-minded and oriented culture than the EU institutions."
He said Catherine Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS), which handles EU foreign and defence policy, is a big target. . . .
"We are quite sure that there is not a single EU country in which Russian intelligence services do not have capacities proportional to the size of the country ... In Estonia, in the past 20 years, intelligence activity has constantly increased," he [Estonian counter-intelligence chief, Aleksander Toots] said.
From Andrew Rettman, EUobserver: Winants: We are a country with an enormous concentration of diplomats, businessmen, international institutions, Nato, European institutions. So for an intelligence officer, for a spy, this is a kindergarten. It's the place to be. You have people here who have commercial and political information, people whom you can try to recruit, people you can try to influence. You have governments where you can try to lobby. And the border between allowed lobbying and not-allowed interference - influence and espionage - is sometimes very hard to identify. Given the special context we have here, I think you can safely say that Brussels is one of the big spy capitals of the world.
EUobserver: The biggest in Europe?
Winants: You have Geneva, of course. But I think that Brussels is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in Europe, given the enormous concentration of people coming from several intelligence services and several nations around the world. (photo: China Euro Services)
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