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27th May 2019

Media and commission object to Belgium's EU summit 'fee'

  • The main press room at the June 2018 EU summit. Journalists are asked to pay €50 each to be checked for security clearance (Photo: Consilium)

The European Commission suggested on Wednesday (1 August) that Brussels-based journalists should file complaints against Belgium, over a planned €50 fee to cover future EU summits.

The fee, to cover security screenings made by Belgian authorities as part of the accreditation procedure, is part of a law adopted earlier this year by the Belgian parliament, and which came into force on 1 June.

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Journalists were informed by the European Council, which organises the summits of EU leaders at least four times each year, ahead of the next summit in October.

"The screening has currently a validity of 6 months. An invoice will be sent to your employer (or to you in case contact details were missing) by Belgian authorities at a later stage," the council said.

Journalists and technicians covering EU summits would therefore be required to pay a total of €100 per year.

"Security screening is compulsory for all media representatives," the council added.

Security screenings, which have led a long-time correspondent being banned from a summit last year because of a parking offence, were stepped up in many activities in Belgium after the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015-2016.

The fee "which was introduced without any warning or consultation, is an unnecessary obstacle to the work of journalists and will restrict media access to events of great public interest," said the International Press Association (API-IPA), which represents foreign correspondents in the EU capital.

API said that the fee was "discriminatory in three ways", because it would apply only to Belgian-based journalists, freelancers would have to pay for it themselves, and smaller media companies would be more impacted by the additional cost.

For the General Association of Professional Journalists of Belgium (AGJPB), the measure is a "violation of the freedom to inform [that] creates a dangerous precedent."

"Nowhere else in democracy do journalists have to pay to obtain an accreditation," the AGJPB insisted.

It added that if Belgian authorities sticked to the plan, "the country would lose much credit as regards to press freedom."

Both the AGJPB and API called on Belgian prime minister Charles Michel and his government to drop the planned fee.

The fee has already been dubbed the 'Michel tax' by the Brussels press corps.

File a complaint

The European Commission, where security procedures are less tight, said it "will not introduce such a fee."

"The European Commission doesn't like the Belgian law," a spokeswoman told reporters.

She pointed out that the EU executive was the guardian of EU treaties and was able to receive complaints about the fee on issues such as discrimination.

"Every individual can file a complaint," she said. "If we receive complaints, we have mechanisms to look into these complaints and to assess them in the context of the law."

The procedure for a complaint is through an online form.

The commission has 15 working days to confirm reception, and 12 months to assess the complaint. If it decides that the complaint is founded, it then launches an infringement procedure against the country.

On Wednesday afternoon, the journalists associations were considering filing such a complaint if the Belgian government refused to drop the fee.

On Wednesday evening, a Belgian government spokesman said that "the concerns expressed by the press" would be examined by the National Security Authority.

"The implementation of new measures will be assessed and, if it is necessary, it can be adjusted in the future," he said.

This article was updated on Thursday morning to take into account the Belgian government's reaction.

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