A Brussels conference heard that the ISIS attacks on Brussels, which killed 31 people and injured another 270 on 22 March, further underline the urgent need for improved collaboration between Europe’s intelligence services, writes Martin Banks.
The policy dialogue was told of the need for improved co-operation between the intelligence services and the police in all member states, “working together to detain and deter terrorists.”
The debate was organized before Tuesday’s atrocity but, it was said, the attacks on the city’s airport and a city centre subway gave the discussion added poignancy.
It was organized by the European Foundation for Democracy and the European Policy Centre, two respected Brussels-based policy institutes, in conjunction with the Counter Extremism Project, a US-based initiative which was launched in Brussels six months ago, and ISPI, the Milan-based Institute for International Political Studies.
Opening the two-hour hearing, the first in a series of policy dialogues on jihadist radicalization and the European responses, Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, said the events of this week, together with the attacks on Paris in November and recent bombings in Ankara, showed the problem of tackling Jihadist radicalization was a Europe-wide issue.
The fact that the terrorists had chosen well known landmarks such as an airport and the EU Quarter of Brussels was “symbolically important” and sent a “clear message” as to their intentions.
Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, who moderated the debate, noted that the “ugly attack”, the latest in a series of such atrocities on capital cities in Europe, showed that it was “more important than ever” to take preventive measures.
A keynote speaker, Rashad Ali, head of strategy at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said that improved intelligence gathering and collaboration between Europe’s police forces and intelligence agencies would be vital in dealing with such phenomenon.
Ali, who has worked closely on counter terrorist issues, said that Europe was now on the “frontline” in the fight against terrorism and radicalization and warned of an even “broader” reach of a “global terrorist project”.
“It is not the first time we have faced such a challenge but what has changed and what is new is the nature of the challenge,” he told the packed meeting.
The challenge, he asserted, came from those who have an “entirely different” view of society from the mainstream and this made the response to such a threat “fundamentally” important.
Ali, a well-known counter terrorist practitioner, cautioned against “engaging” with extremists, arguing that this could be “suicidal”. But he also insisted that it was equally important to ensure that “all Muslims are not labelled in the same way.”
Despite the temptation for reactionary measures in the wake of attacks such as those in Brussels, Ali also said it was vital that those seeking to counter such threats did not “compromise” their “values and principles.”
Further contributions came from Alexander Ritzmann, a senior research fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Security and Society, who also strongly argued against instant reactionary measures.
Ritzmann, who has worked in the area of counter terrorism for many years, also questioned the capacity of the intelligence agencies to address the issues relating to jihadism, religious radicalisation and violent extremism.
He said he was “amazed” that, 15 years after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the West still “did not seem to understand” that terrorism was merely a “tactic” to achieve a specific objective.
“These people do these things not just to kill people – they want a reaction from us,” he argued.
One aim of terrorist attacks was to push moderate Muslims towards extremism and, in the event of attacks such as those in Istanbul, Brussels and other cities, for the Western powers to then “over react.”
Ritzmann added: “This would then allow the extremists to turn round and say to their recruits, ‘we told you so'.
“ISIS and other extremists want to lure the West into a battle on their territory and that is why they want the Americans to send ground troops to Syria.”
He was particularly keen also to highlight what he sees as current shortcomings in the capacity of some intelligence agencies to adequately deal with the threat to domestic and external security of many countries.
“You have to ask questions about the capabilities of our security and intelligence services and also their openness for co-operation and collaboration.”
“Information gathering and information exchange are the cornerstone of our security,” he asserted.
His comments took on added significance after it emerged that the men behind the Brussels bombings were known to police while the head of Europol has also warned that as many as 5,000 ISIS trained jihadists are wandering free in Europe
Ritzmann, though, said that despite the apparently bleak outlook there was some room for optimism, adding: “We can deal with these people – we just need to be smarter in doing it.
Another speaker, Bakary Sambe, a Senegal-based senior fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy, reminded the audience that the problem of radicalisation and extremism was not confined to Europe but was also prevalent in Africa
He pointed out that he knew of instances where young Africans had been “trained” at mosques financed and built by ISIS-affiliates in Senegal and then gone on to fight for the group in Syria
“We have this problem in Africa too of course. It is a clash of religious models and a sort of ‘Islamization’ that is taking place."
While the “ideological dimension” could not be ignored, the university lecturer suggested that the only way to address the issue in the long term was to “invest more” in preventative measures.
In a short Q&A session, some panellists spoke of the ongoing need for an effective alternative, or “counter narrative”, to combat the propaganda that continues to attract young Muslim men and women through a variety of ways to ISIS and such groups.
Ritzmann suggested that the “messenger (s)” of such a counter argument was just as important as the message it sought to convey.
Ritzmann also pointed out that while US-led coalition bombing and other measures had made serious dents in ISIS-held territory and had also badly hit revenue sourced from its oil infrastructure, ISIS still held land “the size of the United Kingdom".
There was a consensus among the participants that it was the terrorist networks, which had spread "much further than many thought", that should be increasingly targeted.
Ali, responding to a question about new threats, spoke about a significant “change of tactic” by ISIS which, he said, was now increasingly using suicide bombers such as those deployed on the streets of Brussels.
Looking to the future, he predicted: “I think we are going to see a greater emphasis on broader terrorist attacks around the world and that is one reason why we need to step back and look at all this in a more sophisticated way."
Roberta Bonazzi, executive director at the European Foundation for Democracy pointed to the need expose the Islamist ideology that inspires and drives such terrorist acts.
"This is a pervasive ideology," Bonazzi said, "that is the source of radicalization that can lead to terrorism and/or recruitment to terrorist organizations.”
Commission approves €10 million Belgian scheme to support organizers of festivals in the Flemish and Brussels Regions in context of the coronavirus outbreak
The European Commission has approved a €10 million Belgian scheme to support organizers of festivals that are planned to take place in the Flemish and Brussels Regions in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. Under this scheme, the support will take the form of direct grants. Beneficiaries will receive up to €500,000 to cover the costs incurred for the organization and production of the festivals as well as for the implementation of measures that the Belgian authorities had to impose to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The purpose of the scheme is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that the beneficiaries are facing due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Commission found that the Belgian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, (i) the support will not exceed €1.8m per company as provided by the Temporary Framework; and (ii) the aid can be granted no later than 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.62017 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.
Brussels business pair launch fresh SOS appeal in wake of 'devastating' impact of coronavirus
Belgium’s battered horeca sector has been devastated by the health pandemic, with dire warnings of possible fresh bankruptcies in the industry. The country’s coronavirus consultative committee, which met on Friday (5 February), offered a ray of hope for bars, cafes and restaurants, both in Brussels and the rest of the country. Federal minister for small businesses, David Clarinval said: "If we reopen contact professions such as hairdressers, beauty salons we will have to wait at least three weeks to see how it goes. If all is going OK, we could hope for the reopening of other sectors in March," writes Martin Banks.
A reopening for restaurants cannot come soon enough for many in the hospitality trade in Belgium, including Alex Joseph (pictured), co-owner of the popular Rouge Tomate on Avenue Louise in Brussels.
Alex and his business partner, Thierry Naoum, have just launched a crowdfunding effort to try and raise enough financial support to stay afloat.
Alex, who hails from the U.S, told this website of their plight, “We have been under extreme pressure to keep our business afloat. Belfius bank has also added to this pressure. The situation a critical. They’ve given myself and Thierry until February 15th to come up with €20,000 or they press the detonate button.”
The restauranteur added, “We’ve paid our debts for over 7 years in total over €400,000. We’ve launched a Gofundme and we are off to a great start but we need more visibility.”
GoFundMe is an American for-profit crowdfunding platform that allows people to raise money for events ranging from life events such as celebrations and graduations to challenging circumstances like accidents and illnesses.
Alex said: “I think one of the worst things is that it’s a situation that’s not our fault. Nor the fault of our landlords or suppliers. It’s true that difficult times are ahead and we are not out of the clear just yet but I’m optimistic and positive about the future.”
The Belgian government gave its approval for the reopening of holiday villages and campsites from 8 February and animal parks from 13 February - when estate agents will again be allowed to show potential buyers and tenants around properties.
One restaurant in Rixensart, Walloon Brabant, reopened on 1 February - but with mannequins taking the place of regular customers, as reported by The Bulletin.
It quoted the owner of Chez Thérèse, Thérèse, saying: "We've given names to each mannequin, in memory of our great customers. We miss them a lot. Between the two waves, business was good - up 60% on the previous year. But afterwards, we're fallen back to zero. We can't take it any longer. We want to work again - this is our livelihood, our daily lives."
The Bulletin also states that the Brussels Hotels Association has also launched a promotional campaign to encourage residents to spend a night away from home with their partner, a close contact or best friend. High-end hotel rooms are on offer for a fraction of their normal price, from 12-21 February.
There are some small signs, then, that the horeca trade might still be rescued by, as Alex, says, “time if of the essence.”
“Things are desperate and we urgently need help now,” he said.
He and Thierry built up the business into what is now one of the most popular restos in Brussels, serving top quality cuisine to an international audience.
To soften the financial blow to the catering sector, the Belgian government offered an exemption from VAT for the financial quarter but Alex says the crisis is the most serious threat to the viability of the Brussels horeca trade since the 2016 terrorist lockdown.
Alex insists that as health has to be of paramount importance he cannot dispute the Government’s right to take such drastic action, such as shutting restos but he adds “The restrictions are severe and will have an impact. For instance, we have had to put some staff on short term hours.
“Restos always seem to be the first to shut and then the last to reopen.
“I am sure we can make this work and get through this massively difficult period,” added Alex, whose typical positive American “can do” attitude is sure to help his business cope with the current situation.
Alex has been at Rouge Tomate since 2009 when he joined as executive chef having come to the attention of Thierry at the New York version of Rouge Tomate. Thierry, a fourth generation Belgian/Moroccan – his grandfather first arrived in Belgium back in 1934 – started work at Rouge Tomate as a relatively humble head waiter.
He was trained at a business school in Brussels and helped to open the New York version in 2008 which is when he first encountered Alex, who is from California.
Alex was one of an astonishing 80 chefs who were working at what, at the time, was the biggest resto in Manhattan.
Impressed by Alex’s record there, Thierry gave him the chance to come to Brussels, an invite he readily accepted.
When Rouge Tomate because available, the pair purchased it and have been business partners ever since.
The intervening years have not been without their difficulties, including the terrible 2016 terrorist attacks that paralysed the horeca trade here. Other challenges have included the tunnel closures on Avenue Louise that hit trade in the area generally.
But, as Alex says, none of this remotely compares to what the horeca trade is suffering right now.
He added: “I just hope and pray we can come out the other side of this nightmare.”
Meanwhile, Belgian consumer group Test Achats has publishing the results of its 9th 'COVID' survey, the objective of which this time was to find out the opinions and perceptions of Belgians about vaccination.
The survey was conducted from 15 to 20 January 2021 on a representative sample of more than 1,000 Belgians.
The results show that the population is still too distrustful of vaccination, in particular among people who do not consider themselves sufficiently informed: in fact, only 4 out of 10 Belgians say they are ready to be vaccinated immediately.
The need for information and transparency about possible side effects and negotiations for the purchase of vaccines appear to be key elements in increasing the confidence of Belgians in vaccination.Test Achats therefore calls on the authorities to be transparent and to go even further in their efforts to better inform the public.
The main reservations expressed for all those not wishing to be vaccinated as soon as possible are fear of side effects (61%), does not belong to a group risqué e (28%) and lack of confidence in the process of development and approval are vaccines (31%).More than 4 out of 10 respondents believe, for example, that the process was too fast to guarantee the safety of citizens. The lack of transparency about negotiations for the purchase of vaccines (price, liability, etc.) is also pinpointed - ess than 1 in 4 Belgians believe that the government has been transparent in this matter.
“The results of our survey only confirm that we have said for months: transparency in discussions and agreements with the pharmaceutical industry is an essential element to win public confidence about vaccination. We hope that our authorities will hear the message,” said Julie Frère, spokesperson for Test Achats.
One year after the start of the pandemic, Test Achat also reports an “immense” impact it has had on the population.
Some 84% of Belgians have been affected in one way or another. More than one in three Belgians has a loved one who has been infected with the virus, and nearly one in 10 Belgians has a loved one who has died. In addition, almost one in three Belgians say that the pandemic has had a significant impact on their mental health, and 14% have seen their economic situation deteriorate due to the crisis.
Commission approves €200 million Belgian scheme to support companies in Flanders affected by coronavirus outbreak
The European Commission has approved a €200 million Belgian scheme to support companies active in the Flemish Region affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the State aid Temporary Framework. The support will take the form of direct grants. The scheme will be open to companies active in all sectors. To be eligible companies must either (i) have suffered a turnover decline, excluding VAT, of at least 60% in the months of January and/or February 2021, compared to the same reference period in 2020; or (ii) be active in the food and drink sectors that were not allowed to operate in January and/or February 2021 as a result of the restrictive measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus, unless their activity was already mainly devoted to take-away; or (iii) be active in eligible sectors listed, e.g. cinemas, fitness centres, wellness centres, indoor playgrounds, in the measure that they were not allowed to operate in January and/or February 2021 as a result of the restrictive measures.
The Commission found that the Belgian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, (i) the support will not exceed €225 000 per company active in the primary production of agriculture products, €270 000 per company active in the fishery and aquaculture sector, and €1 800 000 per company active in other sectors; and (ii) the aid will be granted before 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. On this basis, Commission approved the measure under EU State aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.60524 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.
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