Belgian helicopter scandal widens

Brussels - The threat of a new round of political scandal is hanging over Belgian politics, accelerating the general election and touching Nato and the European Union, writes Andrew Marshall. The Agusta affair involves bribes which the Italian helicopter company is alleged to have paid in 1988 to Socialists. Previously, it has only touched French-speaking Socialists. But the arrest last week of two former Flemish Socialist officials has raised suspicions that investigations may drag down more politicians.

There have been links made in the Belgian press between the long-running bribery scandal and two Belgians who have gone on to better things in international organisations. Willy Claes, the secretary-general of Nato, and Karel Van Miert, an EU Commissioner, yesterday both denied any involvement in or knowledge of any financial misdoings.

Mr Van Miert, leader of the party during the helicopter purchase, flew back from holiday in Latin America yesterday. Sources close to him said that he had no knowledge of any wrong-doing, but that he was more than ready to co-operate with any investigators. Commission rules give him immunity if he wishes.

Mr Claes, who was minister for economic affairs, will speak to Nato ambassadors today to explain his position. "He will reassure them that there's nothing in this," said a Nato official. The renewed scandal may have been one factor in the government's decision to bring forward general elections,to 21 May.

The Flemish Socialists are part of the four-party ruling coalition with the French Socialists and the French and Flemish Christian Democrats, led by Jean-Luc Dehaene.

However, the main reason for the decision is that Mr Dehaene wants a further round of cuts in the fiscal deficit. Belgium is technically ineligible for membership of a single European currency because of its high level of government debt. Mr Dehaene wants to put the economy back on track for monetary union.

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