Belgian Foreign minister under pressure over Brussels summit controversy

Belgian Foreign minister Hadja Lahbib continues to face pressure over the presence of Iranian and Russian delegations at last week's Brussels Urban Summit. The hosting of Tehran's mayor and others already prompted the resignation of Brussels secretary of state Pascal Smet on Sunday.

The presence of Tehran's mayor, Alireza Zakani, at the international event drew widespread criticism last week. Smet came under fire over allegations that his cabinet had pressured Belgium's federal Foreign Affairs ministry to grant visas to a 14-member Iranian delegation to the summit despite initial negative advice.

On Friday, it emerged that two Russian officials had also been invited to the event, despite current EU policy calling for their exclusion. According to Lahbib, they did not obtain visas from the Belgian authorities but through another Schengen country.

Smet said he had not pressured the Foreign Affairs ministry to issue visas but resigned after it emerged that the Brussels region had paid for the Iranian and Russian officials' accommodation.

Spotlight on Lahbib

The spotlight has since been turned on Lahbib, whose ministry was in charge of issuing the visas for the Iranian delegation. Parties such as Ecolo, N-VA and Vlaams Belang have questioned her responsibility in the diplomatic fiasco.

"In principle, we trust each other as colleagues in the government. But there are still questions in this case," Ecolo deputy prime minister Georges Gilkinet told LN24 on Tuesday. "It is a federal responsibility to issue visas, and you don't just hand out visas like chocolates."

Lahbib will be questioned about the affair on Wednesday before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee. Prime minister Alexander De Croo believes her position has not been compromised. "I think we have to put the responsibility where it lies. Brussels decided to invite them despite negative advice and even to pay for it," he told VTM Nieuws on Monday.



Belgian Foreign minister Hadja Lahbib © BELGA PHOTO JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE

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