The first woman to run the EU’s law enforcement agency comes into the job with a lot of doubts to overcome. The biggest: Her previous job.
Catherine De Bolle, like reported by politico.eu, who took over as head of Europol on Tuesday, was Belgium’s top cop during the terror attacks in Paris in 2015 that were partly planned in Brussels, and four months later when the same group struck the EU capital itself. Both of these exposed shortcomings in her country’s policing.
Citing her track record in Belgium, officials at Europol and several European security and intelligence services raised concerns about her ability to coordinate the Continent’s counterterrorism efforts, which is the agency’s main task. Belgian law enforcement drew widespread criticism in particular for failing to share information, both across borders but within Belgium itself, and connect the dots about terror threats.
Security and intelligence sources pointed out that the director of Europol must liaise with police forces from 27 countries and questioned whether she would have the authority to elicit cooperation from security services from across the EU.
“She failed to properly coordinate the country’s police services, one wonders how she will succeed in doing a better job on a European scale,” said a senior security analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She does not allow critical voices to be heard and that is a handicap.”
De Bolle, who served as Commissioner General of the federal police from 2012 until last week, succeeds Rob Wainwright, a former intelligence analyst at MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service. He built a reputation as a strong communicator who used the authority of his office to push for better coordination among European agencies.
Presented with the doubts, De Bolle refuted criticism of her record in Belgium, pointing out that major EU countries including Germany, France and the U.K., as well as the U.S., have suffered deadly terror attacks.
“If … ‘failing’ is having an executed attack, then there are many other countries and authorities that failed in their fight against terrorism because they could not prevent an attack,” De Bolle told POLITICO over email.
“Not only in Europe, but also in the U.S. for example, the FBI interrogated the perpetrator of the attack in Orlando two times prior to the attacks, even a week before the attack,” she said.
She added that Belgian authorities “responded swiftly and in a well-organized manner immediately to the attacks.”
Critics at home
De Bolle has come under attack at home. Belgium’s Committee P, an independent watchdog tasked with overseeing the country’s police force, found in 2016 that Belgian police had information as early as mid-2014 that the brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam — alleged perpetrators of the Paris attacks — intended to carry out “an irreversible act.”
The report also highlighted sloppiness by individuals, limited resources and a lack of procedural guidance for officials dealing with highly sensitive information.
Yves Keppens — who chaired the committee from 2012 until his retirement in 2017 — accused De Bolle of attempting to hamper the investigations that followed the Paris and Brussels attacks.
“After the November 13 attacks in Paris it became increasingly difficult to collaborate with her and her services,” Keppens said. “She said our inquiry constituted an obstacle to their daily work. She also wanted to see a draft of the report. She even used [Belgian Interior Minister Jan] Jambon to push us to release a copy to her.”
Keppens said De Bolle attempted to withhold documents that the committee requested, a violation of the watchdog’s mandate. She also advocated closing the oversight committee in the Belgian press. calling it outdated and voicing frustration about how the police had been treated in the aftermath of the attacks.
De Bolle did not deny that there were tensions between her and the watchdog, and bemoaned the fact that she only heard about the report’s conclusions in the press.
“In my opinion, it is logical that when a service or a policeman receives comments, a possibility is created to defend themselves and that also the defense is included in the report,” De Bolle said. “In this way, the readers of the report receive the full picture and they can take into consideration also the defense.”
Hitting the jackpot
The 48-year-old, media-shy Belgian does have a squad of national and international supporters who describe her as a tough, exceptional police officer who leads by example.
“Cops — it’s a white man job,” said Saad Amrani, the chief commissioner and policy adviser of the Belgian Federal Police. “She has had to develop tremendous strength to survive five years.”
“No one wanted a woman at the head of the organization,” added Amrami, who is of Moroccan descent. “The federal police is a boys club, and many conservatives were not happy to have a female boss.”
Her supporters note that for all the criticism leveled at the Belgian response to the terror attacks, De Bolle emerged personally unscathed.
“Here, you have the first woman to run Europol, and she seems to be ticking the boxes,” said Claude Moraes, a British MEP and chair of the Liberty, Justice and Home Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. “She has been running a very complex situation in her home country and is aware of current failings, strengths and limitations.”
Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, said in a speech in Tallinn last month that by choosing De Bolle, Europol “hit the jackpot,” adding the organization “managed to recruit a remarkable lady for this top-level position.”