Belgians Criticize Persecution of Catalan Leaders

Belgian politicians from the left and right have criticized Spain’s persecution of Catalan leaders, five of whom, including the deposed regional president, Carles Puigdemont, have sought refuge in Brussels.

  • Jan Jambon, interior minister and member of the New Flemish Alliance: “Knocking on peaceful people, government members who are jailed… What did they do wrong? They carried out the mandate they received from their voters. I wonder where Europe is in all this. This is happening in a European member states and the silence is deafening.”
  • Elio Di Rupo, former prime minister and leader of the opposition Socialist Party: “Puigdemont has abused his position, but Rajoy has behaved like an authoritarian Francoist. Let’s find the path to a more federal Spain.”
  • Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister and leader of the liberal bloc in the European Parliament, which includes Spain’s Ciudadanos and Catalonia’s European Democratic Party: “While we have to respect the right and the obligation of Spanish courts to defend and to protect the rule of law, the question must be asked if this imprisonment is disproportionate. Are there no other ways to secure that these separatist leaders receive a fair trial and a judgement?”
  • Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp and leader of the New Flemish Alliance: “Things are happening here which we wouldn’t tolerate in any country of the European Union. You don’t lock people up for practicing their democratic rights.” Read more “Belgians Criticize Persecution of Catalan Leaders”

Catalan Referendum Animates Flemish, Leaves Dutch Cold

The Dutch aren’t sure what to make of Catalonia’s independence bid. Only in the last few days have their news media started paying attention to what’s happening in the region.

Flemish media are more interested. Maybe because they have pragmatically managed their differences with the French-speaking Walloons for decades and are wondering why the Catalans and Spanish can’t do the same? Read more “Catalan Referendum Animates Flemish, Leaves Dutch Cold”

Slowly But Surely, Europe Gets Serious About Its Own Defense

The European Commission proposed a huge increase in defense research spending on Wednesday, the same day Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to jointly replace their aging frigates and minesweepers.

Both moves underscore that Europe is getting more serious about its own defense and come only weeks after the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, reiterated his support for an EU army. Read more “Slowly But Surely, Europe Gets Serious About Its Own Defense”

What Did Walloons Get from Resisting Canada Trade Pact?

The Socialist-led regional government of Belgium’s French-speaking south, which had stalled ratification of a European trade pact with Canada, agreed to support the treaty after all on Thursday.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union will itself not change.

But the Belgians do ask for a four-page addition to the 1,600-page treaty, which must be endorsed by all four of Belgium’s regional parliaments as well as the 27 other EU member states before the full accord can come into force. Read more “What Did Walloons Get from Resisting Canada Trade Pact?”

The Politics of Wallonia’s Resistance to Canada Trade Deal

Regional legislators in the south of Belgium are persisting in their opposition to a European free trade accord with Canada.

I reported here earlier this year that a majority of lawmakers in French-speaking Wallonia are against the treaty, which proposes to eliminate tariffs on almost all goods and services traded between Canada and Europe. The pact is projected to raise transatlantic trade by more than €25 billion per year.

The Walloons worry that European countries will be pressured into weakening their environmental standards and labor laws as a result of the treaty. (Fears that are overblown.)

But there is also a political dimension to their resistance. Read more “The Politics of Wallonia’s Resistance to Canada Trade Deal”

Walloons Could Block Canada Trade Pact

44 legislators in the French-speaking south of Belgium may have just derailed an entire EU trade agreement with Canada.

A majority voted in the Walloon parliament on Thursday to call on the government not to sign the proposed trade pact.

That need not immediately scuttle the treaty. Other European Union nations can still join.

But if everybody else signs the agreement at the EU level, it would still need to be ratified by national legislatures. If the Walloons persist in their resistance at that point, there is no template for what happens next. No regional parliament has ever held up a European treaty. Read more “Walloons Could Block Canada Trade Pact”

Bombs Explode at Brussels Airport, Metro Station

Two men detonated explosives on themselves at Brussels Airport on Tuesday, killing at least ten people, while twenty commuters died in a blast on a metro train near the headquarters of the European Union.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, a fanatical Islamist group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Public transport in the Belgian capital was shut down for much of the day, as was international train service to and from London and Paris. Incoming flights were diverted to Brussels Charleroi and Amsterdam Schiphol. Residents of the city were advised to stay indoors.

The lockdown was eased in the early evening when police carried out searches and arrests across Brussels. Read more “Bombs Explode at Brussels Airport, Metro Station”

Flemish Nationalists Revive Plans for Separation

Flanders’ nationalists revived plans to split Belgium in two this week, angering their right-wing coalition partners in the federal government who had hoped to put the issue to rest.

Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), tasked his party’s parliamentary whip with devising a strategy for separating the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium from French-speaking Wallonia by the time of the next election in 2019.

This comes as Charles Michel’s government, in which the N-VA is the largest party, is strengthening federal law enforcement following a terror scare in November that came after attacks in France. Read more “Flemish Nationalists Revive Plans for Separation”

Belgium Lowers Terror Threat, Keeps Soldiers in Streets

Brussels Belgium police
Police and soldiers guard the Grand Place of Brussels, Belgium, November 23 (Antonio Ponte)

Belgium dialed back security measures in the capital, Brussels, on Thursday after Prime Minister Charles Michel announced a reduction in the city’s threat level.

“We are no longer in a situation where the threat is very close,” he said.

Schools and shopping malls were due to reopen on Friday and public transportation would resume.

But Michel kept hundreds of extra police officers and soldiers in the streets and said the situation was still “serious.”

He did not give any details. Read more “Belgium Lowers Terror Threat, Keeps Soldiers in Streets”

Sixteen Arrested, Belgium on High Terror Alert

Brussels Town Hall Belgium
Police outside the Town Hall of Brussels, Belgium at night, November 23 (Antonio Ponte)

Belgian authorities said on Sunday they would keep the country’s terror alert at its highest level going into Monday, citing a “serious and imminent” threat to the capital, Brussels.

Sixteen arrests were carried out in Brussels and the city of Charleroi, closer to the border with France, after parts of the capital were evacuated by police on Sunday night. The federal prosector’s office said after midnight that nearly two dozen houses had been searched, but no explosives or weapons were found.

Prime Minister Charles Michel announced earlier in the day that schools and subways were to remain shut. “We fear an attack like in Paris, with several individuals, perhaps in several places,” he said.

Officials recommended that sports competitions and other public activities be canceled.

Synagogues were advised to close their doors as well. A few decided to stay open anyway for Shabbat prayer services. Read more “Sixteen Arrested, Belgium on High Terror Alert”