Protest in EU capital prompts security scare at US embassy
Stone-throwing protesters prompted a “lock-down” at the US embassy to the EU in Brussels on Friday (4 April), as the US ambassador briefed press on the merits of free trade.
The rally saw between 25,000 and 50,000 people, mostly from Belgian trade unions, march past the US mission toward the EU district, where leaders gave speeches before the crowd melted away.
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Protesters aired a mixed bag of grievances. One man told EUobserver he is against “austerity.” A second one said he is against “wage dumping”.
People also voiced anger at multinationals and globalisation. Some placards said: “Europe: owned by wolves, governed by dogs.” Others said: “EU yes, TTIP no” - referring to the acronym of a draft EU-US free trade treaty.
A few people threw stones and firecrackers at the US embassy as they passed by. They also threw stones at the EU external relations building and a perfume shop.
Belgian police used water cannons, while security staff at the US mission ordered staff to stay inside and to keep away from windows in what they called a “lock-down.”
It was the first time they did it since anti-Iraq war protests in 2003, despite the small scale of the violence.
The scare came toward the end of a press briefing by the new US ambassador to the EU, Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, the former director of a London-based private equity firm, Palamon Capital Partners.
Gardner had called in the media to highlight his priorities after taking up the post on 18 March.
He said his main task will be to shepherd progress on TTIP.
As the protesters approached, he said: “I am worried about some of the narratives that are gaining ground in some [EU] member states, many of which are based on misinformation.”
He said he has a “stack” of studies on his desk which say TTIP will promote jobs and economic growth. He listed as fallacies claims that big business will reap all the benefits, that TTIP will undermine consumer protection, and that the negotiations are unduly secretive.
He also promised to play an active public role.
“I’m looking forward to meeting people like Mr Bove … I am not going to be on the back foot. I’m looking forward to this,” he said, referring to Jose Bove, a French MEP and anti-globalisation activist, shortly before security staff ushered the US ambassador upstairs.
Gardner also noted he will be “spending a lot of time” in the European Parliament, which must ratify the free-trade deal.
With pollsters predicting gains for far-right and far-left populists in the May elections, he added: “One thing that gives me hope is that the fringe groups have very little in common and I don’t think they’ll be that effective.”
He said his other priority will be US-EU diplomacy on the Ukraine crisis.
Repeating the message of last week’s US-EU summit, he noted that EU sanctions on Russian officials complement US measures. “It’s the beginning of the story [the crisis], but so far we are satisfied with the extent of [EU] co-operation we have seen.”
He accused Russian gas firm Gazprom of exerting undue pressure on Ukraine and on EU states. “Let’s be clear: Gazprom has been using energy as a weapon,” he said.
He also said the US is willing to share technological and regulatory know-how on shale gas to help EU countries reduce Russian dependence.
In a personal insight, he told an anecdote about his wedding to explain how he will operate in EU circles.
He said he and his wife had wanted to marry in a deconsecrated former synagogue and church in the Spanish town of Toledo, but the archbishop said No.
Gardner tried to use contacts at the US embassy in Spain to talk to Spanish authorities and even to the royal family. But none of it worked. The breakthrough came when someone overheard him at a party and said he knew the archbishop’s dentist. Wheels were set in motion, and following the prelate’s next dental appointment, he changed is mind.
“It’s not always how far up the chain you go, it’s knowing the right people who, at the right time, can get the right result,” Gardner said.
“I want to know the dentists in Brussels. I want to know the influencers,” he added.