|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||12/10/95, Volume 1, Number 04|
NATO's long-term credibility could be dealt another blow in the coming weeks if a special committee of the Belgian parliament decides to revoke Secretary- General Willy Claes' immunity from prosecution so that he can be indicted on charges of corruption and fraud.
Claes will appear before the committee tomorrow (13 October) after an all-party commission upheld a request from the Cour de Cassation to review his immunity. The Cour de Cassation, which is the only tribunal that can try Belgian ministers and former ministers, wants to charge Claes over his possible involvement in, or knowledge of, payments to his Flemish Socialist party by the Italian helicopter firm Agusta in 1988.
The hearing has caused great consternation among NATO leaders. “We cannot afford to have our general secretary absorbed in legal wrangles,” one exasperated NATO official said. “We need someone who can devote all his energy and his attention to the Alliance.”
Last May, Willy Claes was the target of similar allegations and was questioned for two days. Although at that time some NATO members openly asked for his resignation, he successfully swam through those particular rapids and emerged apparently unscathed.
The new hints of scandal could not have come at a more inauspicious moment for the transatlantic alliance with NATO completing the planning of one of its most difficult tasks of the post Cold War.
The implementation of the Bosnian peace plan which will involve the deployment of up to 50,000 soldiers needs solid and unquestioned leadership in an operation that could seal the fate of hostilities in former Yugoslavia and test the long-term viability of the Alliance.
The new episode could not have arisen at a more critical time for US President Bill Clinton either.
Clinton, on the eve of the 1996 re-election campaign, is intent on proving the effectiveness of his foreign policy and cannot afford losing through a scandal in Belgium what he has been trying to wrest from a hostile and increasingly isolationist Republican majority on Capitol Hill. Clinton's attitude will be decisive since the US administration has consistently backed the pro-American former Belgian foreign minister.
The Agusta bribery scandal has been rocking Belgium since the beginning of the decade. In 1988, Claes was economics minister and therefore a key player in awarding contracts when Agusta allegedly handed kickbacks of some 2.6 million ecu to the Walloon and Flemish Socialist parties in exchange for defence procurements orders.
In Williamsburg last week for a meeting of NATO defence ministers, Claes again protested that he was “totally innocent”. However, the magistrate's report apparently pinpoints inconsistencies in his former statements.
The worst possible outcome for NATO would be a protracted legal battle or a decision by the Belgian parliament to postpone a recommendation and ask for further investigations. According to Belgian sources, the parliamentary committee will soon send a formal recommendation to the full chamber.
If Claes were to bow to pressure and resign, the hunt would be on for a replacement. One name being linked to the post is that of Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, leader of Denmark's Liberal party and a former foreign minister. But with his party overtaking the Social Democratic Party in the opinion polls, his availability may depend on how he rates his chances of leading a coalition government.
|Subject Categories||Economic and Financial Affairs, Justice and Home Affairs, Security and Defence|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia|