Belgium Member of the European Parliament (Renew Europe Group - Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten) Hilde Vautmans is getting accused of misuse of money and toxic management. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

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Belgian Liberal EP list lead denies misuse of EU money, staff


Renew Europe MEP Hilde Vautmans, who leads the list for the Flemish Liberals in the European Parliament elections in June, has denied allegations of misappropriating EU funds and mistreating her parliamentary staff.

Speaking to Brussels Signal, Vautmans rejected all allegations of wrongdoing made by the Belgian  magazine Knack against her.

She went on to refer to her recent interview on TVLimburg, during which she countered the publication’s allegations.

Labelling the listed claims as “defamatory”, she noted that the accusations were made anonymously, making it difficult to refute.

She added that she still had cordial relationships with many of her former employees and that, throughout her career, not a single complaint has been filed against her “despite the fact that the European Parliament provides extensive opportunities for this”.

Vautmans also took to the radio show De Ochtend to counter the claims, saying that at least 12 ex-employees had messaged her that they believed the accusations were unjustified.

“If my commitment has sometimes meant that I was too demanding of myself and my employees, then this is an area of attention for me,” Vautmans said.

“Many of my interns are still grateful to me for the experience they were offered.”

Regarding the alleged misuse of funds, she said all dealings had been in line with strict European regulations.

Asked if she used employees to campaign in her home town, she said: “It is a very thin line.”

She referred to one incident regarding her work with fruit farmers, asking: “Is that linked to my committee work in the parliament’s Agriculture Committee? Is it as a local alderwoman for Agriculture or is it as a Member of the European Parliament affiliated with the Agriculture Committee?”

She did not clarify whether she would take steps against Knack, who accuses her of lying.

According to Knack, Vautmans, who also serves as an alderwoman in her municipality of Sint-Truiden, is alleged to have assigned EU assistants for local tasks completely unrelated to the bloc’s workings, in violation of regulations.

Knack said her European assistants allegedly were deployed to campaign and distribute election flyers, sometimes even requiring them to use holidays for this purpose.

One intern, the magazine said, allegedly was coerced to help with a hotel and catering guide in which the EU was not mentioned at all.

Vautmans defended herself by highlighting that the European assistant working in her hometown was a local assistant, as well as a friend of the family, before he died two years ago.

It is claimed that, despite MEPs receiving a monthly allowance of €4,950 for expenses, former assistants said they were forced to pay work-related telephone charges themselves.

“Vautmans does not disclose these expense reimbursements — taxpayer money — and also does not return the monthly surpluses,” Knack claimed.

The Belgian magazine noted that the MEP receives a monthly net salary of €8,000 and daily allowances of €350 (aside from the monthly allowance of €4,950), plus another mostly net salary of around €5,000 for being an alderman in her city.

Former assistants reportedly allege that the Belgian Liberal party Open Vld member regularly went to the European Parliament to sign in for a daily allowance and would then leave immediately.

Most of the accusations are not strictly illegal, something Knack even admitted in their piece, though the magazine says it at least goes against principles of deontology.

Vautmans is the president of the MEP Horse Group, said to be an informal group of MEPs who follow equestrianism.

Yet according to the Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog organisation, the Horse Group is an extension of the European Horse Network, a lobby group.

In 2021, the EU voted in favour of reducing the Value Added Tax (VAT) rate for horse purchases from 21 per cent to 6 per cent. Vautmans apparently ruffled feathers after she jubilantly tweeted about the move.

It is also alleged she funnelled European funds to equestrian organisations.

“She purchases VIP tables at equestrian events with European funds, then adds a European logo to them and skilfully communicates that it is about a debate on Europe,” an unnamed employee claimed in Knack.

“In reality, there is hardly any discussion about Europe but she is there for her enjoyment.” A VIP table for such events can cost €6500, excluding VAT, the magazine noted.

Next to potential financial misgivings, Vautmans is also facing criticism over her apparent human resources policy.

In nine years, she has seen 18 employees come and go, with interns said to have quickly become disillusioned. One unnamed ex-employee reportedly claimed the atmosphere at work under her was “toxic”. Another supposedly told Knack of alleged “psychological intimidation”.

“Over trivial matters, the situation could suddenly explode,” another former employee is said to have told the magazine.

“We were scolded. It was truly WhatsApp terrorism,” reportedly claimed another. “Vautmans could ask you something late at night and demand the opposite in the early hours.”

“You just didn’t know where you stood. It was exhausting.”

According to an alleged former employee, her reputation was well-known among both Open Vld staff and other assistants of MEPs in the European liberal faction.

When Vautmans was dissatisfied with their work, employees allegedly were sometimes publicly humiliated, at work or in WhatsApp groups.  They also had to be always prepared to work after hours and during the weekends, it is claimed.

Still, despite the many apparent complaints, no former employee pushed for any action against her.

Belgian political scientist Steven Van Hecke claimed in Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that the EU was not, in fact, “strict” and did not demand enough transparency in cases such as Vautmans’.

“It should have used Qatargate [The influence-peddling scandal that has haunted the EP for more than a year] to put a lid on this, but it didn’t,” Van Hecke said.

The entire story comes at a difficult time for the Flemish liberals, just ahead of European and national elections when the party is tanking in the polls.

On May 12, party President Tom Ongena said Open Vld will side with the opposition if it gets less than 10 per cent of the national vote.