Brussels Orders Closure Of Bars, Cafes To Curb COVID-19 Spikes

Minister-President of Brussels region Rudi Vervoort gestures as he gives a press conference after a meeting of the actors of the Brussels region to discuss tighter measures to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, at Brussels City Hall in Brussels on October 7, 2020. – (Photo by THIERRY ROGE / BELGA / AFP) / Belgium OUT

 

The Belgian capital took a step towards restoring its coronavirus lockdown Wednesday when Brussels ordered cafes and bars to close for a month.

Restaurants serving meals at table will remain open, but bars and drinking alcohol in public places will be banned until November 8, the regional government said.

This is the second time Brussels has imposed such a measure since the coronavirus outbreak after a previous lockdown helped bring cases down.

But new infections — as well as serious cases involving hospital admissions — are rising again, and regional authorities are tightening rules.

Already, Belgium’s new national government had ordered bars and cafes should close from 11 pm, but regional president Rudi Vervoort decided this was not enough.

The Brussels capital region is home to a densely packed 1.2 million people and is the seat of the Belgian government and of both NATO and the European Union.

In the past week, Belgium as a whole has recorded an average of 2,500 new coronavirus infections per day, up by 57 percent over the previous seven days.

Hospital admissions are also up 25.7 percent over the week, and more than 11 people are dying every day.

With 10,092 deaths from a population of 11.2 million, Belgium is one of the worst-hit countries.

-AFP

Brussels Airlines Lost 182 Million Euros In Six Months

 

Belgium’s biggest airline, Lufthansa subsidiary Brussels Airlines, said Thursday it had lost 182 million euros in the first six months of 2020 because of the coronavirus crisis.

First-half revenues fell to 252 million euros, 63 percent below the same period last year. Brussels Airlines transported two thirds fewer passengers between January and June as much of the world imposed anti-virus lockdowns.

Brussels Airlines suspended all scheduled flights from 21 March, running only special flights to repatriate Belgian and German citizens, transport medical equipment to Africa, and import medical masks from China.

Commercial flying resumed on June 15 as European countries began to ease their social and economic lockdowns, but the airline’s network remains limited.

“Due to the still volatile and highly unpredictable situation worldwide, it is not possible to make forecasts for 2020 as a whole,” the company warned.

Last month the Belgian state and the German flag-carrier Lufthansa struck a deal to rescue its struggling partner.

A Belgian government loan of 290 million euros ($337 million) and a capital injection of 170 million euros from Lufthansa will cover some of the airline’s losses.

But Brussels Airlines plans to use the money for restructuring that will see it shed around a quarter of its workforce — affecting around 1,000 people.

Lufthansa, the leading European transport group, was itself handed a nine billion euro bailout last month from the German government.

 

 

-AFP

Macron Clashes With Rutte And Kurz At EU Summit

Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte (L) looks on next to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel ( 2nd L), President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (2nd R) and France's President Emmanuel Macron prior the start of the European Council building in Brussels, on July 18, 2020, as the leaders of the European Union hold their first face-to-face summit over a post-virus economic rescue plan. Francisco Seco / POOL / AFP
Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte (L) looks on next to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel ( 2nd L), President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (2nd R) and France’s President Emmanuel Macron prior the start of the European Council building in Brussels, on July 18, 2020. Francisco Seco / POOL / AFP

 

Tempers flared as the deadlocked EU coronavirus summit rolled over from Sunday into Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron upbraiding his Dutch and Austrian colleagues and threatening a walk-out.

Frustration had been building for three days as the 27 leaders wrangled over the size and form of an up to 750-billion-euro ($860-billion) package of loans and grants to lift virus-ravaged countries out of recession.

An alliance of so-called “frugals”, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, has been resisting calls for the bulk of the funds to be doled out as non-repayable grants.

READ ALSO: I Almost Killed My Daughter, Kanye West Reveals At Chaotic Opening Of Presidential Bid

Macron, according to witnesses, bashed the table, attacked Kurz for leaving the room to make a call, and accused Rutte of behaving like former British premier David Cameron — whose strategy “ended badly”.

Cameron often took a hard line at EU summits seeking concessions for Britain, but ended up losing a Brexit referendum — and his job.

According to a European source Kurz was offended by Macron’s behaviour.

A member of the French delegation told AFP that some of the accounts of what had happened has been “a little caricatured” but confirmed that Macron had “taken a hard line on their inconsistencies”.

According to officials, Macron had denounced the two leaders for their insistence that the recovery funds take the form of loans with strict conditions attached, rather than as grants — and had said he would rather walk away than make a bad deal.

France wants at least 400 billion euros to be available as grants, but the Frugals want to cut that back substantially.

Brexit Talks Move To London After Tough Week In Brussels

An anti-Brexit activist waves a Union and a European Union flag as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in central London/ AFP

 

Britain’s separation talks with the European Union resume Monday with few signs of compromise on a new trade agreement and time running out to avoid a messy split.

London will host EU negotiator Michel Barnier after a round of face-to-face talks ended a day early last week in Brussels because of deep divides in the sides’ approach.

Barnier said after ending the negotiations last Thursday that “serious divergences remain”.

His UK counterpart David Frost said there were “significant differences” that meant the sides were still searching for basic “principles underlying an agreement”.

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said upon taking over help of the EU’s rotating presidency Wednesday that both her country and the 27-nation bloc “should prepare for the case that an agreement is not reached”.

Britain followed through on the results of a 2016 EU membership referendum and officially pulled out of the bloc in January after nearly half a century.

But a standstill transition period that ends on December 31 allows the UK to effectively function as if it were still a member.

London and Brussels are supposed to agree new trade terms in the meantime that prevent ties from reverting to the minimum standards — and accompanying high tariffs and quotas — of the World Trade Organization.

British businesses fear that possibility and want Prime Minister Boris Johnson to give them guidance as soon as possible about whether a trade deal is feasible or not.

This would give them a chance to trigger costly contingency planning aimed at disrupting trade and business activity as little as possible.

But EU officials feel much less pressure to strike a quick agreement and are suggesting that one could still be done by late October.

– Litany of disputes –

Brussels has shrugged off Johnson’s repeated threats to walk away and accept very distant relations with the bloc that complicated trade but gave Britain broader independence.

The differences between the sides remain vast.

London refuses to accept jurisdiction over trade disputes by the European Court of Justice and wants a much bigger part of fishing waters it now shares with the bloc.

A separate dispute concerns the degree to which Britain must follow EU rules on state aid to important economic sectors as well as labour and environmental rules.

London argues that the entire point of leaving the bloc was to give Britain a bigger say over its own affairs.

Brussels counters that Britain cannot expect to undercut the bloc on price through looser standards and still expect a favourable trade deal.

The talks in London are being held in an intensified format that follows video conference discussion held at the European height of the coronavirus crisis.

AFP

 

EU Launches Judicial Freedom Case Against Poland

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology

 

The EU on Wednesday launched a new legal challenge against reforms in Poland that Brussels says threaten judicial independence.

The move is the latest round in a long-running tussle between the European Commission — the bloc’s executive — and right-wing governments in Eastern Europe it accuses of undermining fundamental EU values.

Wednesday’s case is the fourth lodged by commission against Warsaw since the conservative government there began seeking new oversight over judges’ work and careers.

Some of the reforms have been already been softened or rolled back, but the Polish government is pushing ahead with new disciplinary rules opposed by Brussels.

A commission statement said the latest “infringement procedure” was “designed to safeguard the independence of judges in Poland” against “political control”.

It was announced by Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who travelled to Poland in January to raise concerns with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government.

“Member states can reform their judiciary, but they have to do it without breaching the EU treaties,” she told reporters during a Brussels video briefing.

“There are clear risks that the provisions regarding the disciplinary regime against judges can be used for political control of the content of judicial decisions, among others.

“This is a European issue, because Polish courts apply European law. Judges from other countries must trust that Polish judges act independently.

“This mutual trust is the foundation of our single market,” she warned, giving Warsaw two months to respond to an action that “can not have come as a surprise”.

– Judicial unease –

According to the commission, the law “increases the number of cases in which the content of judicial decisions can be qualified as a disciplinary offence.

“As a result, the disciplinary regime can be used as a system of political control of the content of judicial decisions.”

In a sign of unease, a German court in February refused to extradite a suspect to Poland, citing fears that the judicial reforms might deprive him of a fair trial.

Three infringement procedures have already been launched against Poland since 2017.

The first two, concerning retirement conditions for judges of the ordinary courts and the Supreme Court, were upheld by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In the third case, concerning the new rules for judges, the court ordered Poland on April 8 to suspend the new disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court, pending a final ruling.

The head of the Polish Supreme Court, Malgorzata Gersdorf, ordered the suspension, but the decision was challenged and the matter referred to the Constitutional Court.

The European Commission has also initiated a procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland in 2017, which in theory can lead to political sanctions.

This mechanism, provided for in the event of a “serious breach” of the rule of law in an EU member, has also been activated, this time by the European Parliament, against Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

AFP

NATO Chief Backs Assessment That Iran Missile Downed Ukrainian Plane

 

 

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday he had no reason to doubt reports from Western capitals suggesting an Iranian missile brought down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people.

“I will not go into details about our intelligence but what I can say is we have no reason to not believe the reports we have seen from different NATO-allied capitals,” Stoltenberg said.

Canada and Britain have both said Iran shot down the plane outside Tehran, possibly mistakenly.

Britain And EU Strike Brexit Deal Ahead Of Summit

An official hangs a Union Jack next to an European Union flag at EU Headquarters in Brussels on October 17, 2019, ahead of a European Union Summit on Brexit. Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

 

Britain and the European Union reached a last-ditch Brexit deal on Thursday, just hours before an EU summit that is expected to give it a seal of approval.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson will still have to take the accord to a sceptical British parliament for its backing on Saturday, and it is far from certain that it will pass.

Johnson, who has pledged to take Britain out of the EU with or without an agreement, tweeted: “We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control — now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday.”

EU officials are pleased they avoided an immediate crisis at the European Council summit, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recommended that the other 27 EU leaders endorse the deal.

READ ALSO: N. Ireland’s DUP Says Opposition To Brexit Deal Remains

“Where there is a will, there is a deal — we have one! It’s a fair and balanced agreement for the EU and the UK and it is testament to our commitment to find solutions,” Juncker tweeted.

The draft agreement was forged just weeks before Britain was due to leave the bloc on October 31, ending more than four decades of close economic and political ties with its nearest neighbours.

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said: “We have managed to find solutions that fully respect the integrity of the single market.

“We created a new and legally operative solution to avoid a hard border, and protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland,” he said.

“It is a solution that works for the EU, for the UK and for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”

One immediate hurdle is opposition from Johnson’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which pre-emptively rejected the compromise.

The agreement would see the British-ruled province remain under EU customs and Value Added Tax (VAT) rules, and the loyalist DUP announced that it can not support it.

It is not clear how many of Johnson’s Conservative MPs will back the deal, and if the British opposition could vote it down or attempt to force a nationwide referendum to approve or reject it.

Before setting off for Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted approvingly that London had been ready to negotiate and put “concrete proposals on the table”.

Economic disruption

Under the measures to replace the so-called “Irish backstop” in the previous failed agreement, the plan would see Northern Ireland remain British legal territory but trade under EU regulations.

This is intended to prevent the return of a hard border with EU-member Ireland. But, because it would involve some customs and tax checks with the rest of the UK, it raised the hackles of the DUP.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier was to give a news conference to outline more details of the deal.

But one EU source told AFP the agreement “is politically fragile in London” because of Johnson’s reliance on votes from the DUP and Conservative eurosceptics.

The leaders also hope the summit will rise above the Brexit mire and focus on the EU budget debate, bids by North Macedonia and Albania to start talks to join the bloc, and the crisis in relations with Turkey.

The Brexit issue is first on the agenda, with the EU’s 27 other leaders to hear Johnson speak then retire to mull their response. But the issue could be delayed to Friday if the deal text needs more work.

Counter-Terror Police Arrest Man Suspected Of Plotting Attack On US Embassy

The US Embassy in Brussels, Belgium.

 

Belgian counter-terror police have arrested a man suspected of plotting an attack against the US embassy in Brussels, federal prosecutors said Monday.

The police on Saturday arrested the man following “converging signs raising fears of an attack against the US embassy,” the prosecutor’s office said.

“The suspect has been detained for an alleged attempted attack within a terrorist context and preparation of a terrorist offence,” it said in a statement.

The man identified only as M.G. appeared Monday morning before an investigating judge who ordered him held, it added.

The suspect denies any involvement in the alleged plot.

A source close to the investigation told AFP the suspect is a Belgian man around 40 years old and a convert to Islam who had “raised suspicion because of his behaviour”.

READ ALSO: Iran Rejects Dialogue With US After Fresh Sanctions

He had been seen “scouting” the embassy area before he was arrested, the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source declined to say whether the suspect fit the profile of a jihadist.

A spokesman for the US embassy said, “We have no comment at this time.”

Jihadists have staged a number of attacks in Brussels, which hosts the headquarters of the European Union and NATO.

The worst was on March 22, 2016, when suicide bombers killed 32 people and wounded hundreds of others at Brussels airport and a metro station near EU buildings.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the twin attacks.

Previous attacks in Belgium

Since 2016, several other attacks, some of them also claimed by IS, have targeted Belgian police or soldiers.

The last “terrorist attack” occurred in the eastern city of Liege on May 29 last year when Benjamin Herman shot dead two women police officers and a student.

He shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) before being shot dead by the police.

Since the end of January 2018, the terror alert level in Belgium has been set at two, which means an attack is considered unlikely, the same as it was before January 2015.

A level three alert — indicating an attack is possible and likely — was set later in January 2015 after police smashed a jihadist cell in the eastern city of Verviers.

That Belgian police raid occurred a week after attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and Jewish supermarket in Paris.

The level four alert — which means a serious and imminent threat of attack — has been put in place twice but for limited duration.

It was imposed for the first time for a week in the wake of the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris which claimed the lives of 130 people and wounded hundreds of others.

It was then raised from three to four in the days after the March 2016 attacks.

Police say they believe the same cell was behind both the French and Belgium attacks.

AFP

Bomb Scare In Brussels EU Quarter

Security personels cordon the area during a bomb threat around the European institutions in Brussels on March 19, 2019.
EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

 

Part of the European quarter in Brussels was evacuated on Tuesday, just two days before a European summit following a bomb threat to a lobbying firm.

The call was received by GPLUS, a public affairs and strategic communications consulting firm located across from the offices of Agence-France Presse (AFP).

The office is also a few dozen metres from the UK permanent representation where staff, hard at work on Brexit, were ordered to remain indoors.

READ ALSO: Letter Evidence Points To ‘Terror’ In Dutch Tram Attack – Authorities

“I evacuated the offices and notified the police,” GPLUS executive Thomas Barros-Tastets told AFP.

The alert was lifted shortly after 1:00 pm (1200 GMT), two hours after the intervention began.

Belgian police and the fire brigade mobilised significant resources, including a team to evacuate potential victims as quickly as possible.

The perimeter was sealed off, building residents confined and police sniffer dogs inspected vehicles parked in the area.

AFP

Brussels Loses Euro 2020 Matches To Wembley – UEFA

UEFA-Euro-2020-Logo-London

Wembley Stadium in London will host four Euro 2020 matches originally set to be staged in Brussels, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said on Thursday.

The European football governing body’s executive committee decided “unanimously” to strip Brussels of its four matches due to the inability of Belgian organisers to guarantee the new stadium to the north of the capital where they would have been held could be built in time.

Wembley will now host seven matches, including the two semi-finals and the final on July 12, 2020.

AFP

Hundreds Rally For Catalan Independence In Brussels

Protesters hold a banner during a demonstration by pro-Catalan independence supporters calling for the release of jailed separatist leaders on November 12, 2017, in Brussels.  EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

Several hundred people rallied in Brussels on Sunday to back the independence push in Catalonia, slam the EU and demand Spain release jailed regional officials.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, was a no-show at the demonstration that included pro-independence European Parliament members and several members of the exiled regional government.

“Democracy in Spain is not only sick, it is practically dead,” Spanish MEP Josep-Maria Terricabras, who backs Catalan independence, told the demonstrators.

“I think that it is absolutely terrible that the European institutions don’t understand that when you attack democracy you cannot applaud (Spanish Prime Minister Mariano) Rajoy and institutions in Spain that are outside the law,” he added.

The protest, just metres from the European Union’s main institutions, came a day after hundreds of thousands of Catalans protested the jailing of regional officials for their push for independence from Spain.

In Brussels, protesters held photos of the jailed officials, as well as signs saying “Shame on you” for the EU’s failure to lend support to Catalonia.

Flags from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region of Flanders were also prevalent at the protest, with sympathy deep for the Catalonian cause among Flemish nationalists.

The EU was “founded to not see the return dictatorship and fascism in Europe,” said the ousted Catalan Minister of Health Antoni Comin.

As Comin spoke, the crowd interrupted with chants of “Libertad (freedom)” and “All not here” in reference to the jailed regional officials in Spain.

Comin is one of five officials who fled to Belgium after Spain dismissed the Catalan executive and imposed direct rule on the semi-autonomous region following the declaration of independence by the parliament there last month.

Belgian judges are reviewing a European arrest warrant filed by Spain on charges of sedition and rebellion against the five Catalans.

Read Also: Spain PM Rajoy Calls On Companies Not To Leave Catalonia  

AFP

‘Catalonia’s Leader, Puigdemont In Brussels’

FILE PHOTO: Catalan president Carles Puigdemont leaves the hemicycle after Catalonia’s parliament voted to declare independence from Spain on October 27, 2017 in Barcelona. LLUIS GENE / AFP

Catalonia’s dismissed separatist leader Carles Puigdemont was in Brussels on Monday, a Spanish government source said, as prosecutors called for him to be charged with rebellion over his drive for Catalan independence.

The news came as Madrid took political control of Catalonia after declaring that Puigdemont and his separatist regional administration were dismissed on Friday, following the Catalan parliament’s independence declaration.

On Sunday Belgium’s immigration minister suggested Puigdemont could receive asylum in Belgium on the grounds that he might not get a fair trial in Spain.

On Monday the Spanish government source told AFP that Puigdemont “is in Brussels”.

Catalan daily La Vanguardia reported that he was accompanied by others from his former administration.

Puigdemont, 54, said the result of an outlawed independence referendum on October 1 gave the region a mandate to declare independence.

Madrid and the Spanish courts said the referendum was illegal and that a unilateral independence declaration would violate the constitution.

Belgian immigration minister Theo Francken, a member of the Flemish separatist N-VA party, said Sunday it was “not unrealistic” that Belgium could offer protection to Puigdemont.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said an asylum request from Puigdemont was “absolutely not on the agenda”.

The European Union has backed the Spanish government in the Catalan independence dispute.

AFP