Two European Commission officials have been arrested by Belgian police, charged with masterminding a tourism fraud, it was announced yesterday.
The officials are accused of siphoning off hundreds of thousands of pounds of European Union money which should have been spent on tourism projects, and paying bribes to secure contracts to front companies proposing spurious tourism projects in several countries across Europe.
George Tzoanos, the Greek head of the Commission's tourism unit, is accused of running the fraud along with Pascal Chatillon, a French colleague. Mr Tzoanos's wife was also arrested.
It is the first time police from an EU member state have arrested EU officials on fraud charges, and the controversy will again cast light on corruption within the European institutions. Public criticism of waste and fraud involving the EU budget erupted last year when its spending watchdog said that more than 4 per cent of the annual budget could not be properly accounted for.
Commission spokesmen insisted yesterday that the firm action taken over the alleged tourism fraud, and the organisation's full co-operation with the Belgian police, demonstrated that efforts were being made to stop the rot. However, the tourism scandal dates back to 1990, and critics - particularly within the European Parliament - believe the Commission was slow to act.
Immunity from prosecution, granted to all EU officials, was only lifted last year in the case of the two men charged, when they were suspended. It is understood that Mr Tzoanos and Mr Chatillon left Belgium once their immunity from prosecution was lifted last year and were arrested when they attempted to re-enter the country.
The charges relate to deals first set up in 1990 between the European Commission's tourism directorate and companies trying to secure tenders for projects associated with The European Year of Tourism.