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26th Jan 2020

Doubts emerge on Belgium’s counter-terror group

  • Syria-bound EU nationals are said to pose a potential security risk (Photo: a.anis)

Sweden has opted out of Belgium’s new counter-terrorism scheme amid internal debate on the merits of the plan.

The Belgian interior ministry earlier this week said Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Spain, The Netherlands, and the UK had “approved” new “actions” to stop their nationals from going to the Middle East or Africa to fight as jihadists.

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Belgium had wanted Sweden to sign up as well, but the Nordic country dropped out at the last minute.

An EU source involved in the talks told EUobserver that Stockholm opposes the idea of launching a new plan which repeats what law enforcement services, intelligent services, and border services do anyway on a daily basis.

“A lot of others in the group said the same thing, but at the end of the day, they accepted some vague language so they could sign a political facade saying ‘We are united in this’,” the source said.

The contact noted that Belgium launched the initiative following a fatal shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May.

“It is for domestic purposes. Milquet [the Belgian minster of interior] wants to show she is doing a lot of things to tackle this phenomenon, she has to show something”.

They added that there was similar EU "posturing" after the 2004 bombings in Madrid and the 2005 bombings in London.

“When it comes to implementation we are not doing our homework. The same thing happened after Madrid in 2004, 2005 London … it is a bit ironic to see these nine or 11 countries pushing for firm action now. They were not so keen in 2004 or 2005”.

Meanwhile, uncertainty also surrounds the role of Ireland and Italy.

Other EU contacts said Belgium’s “core group” on the scheme initially involved Ireland, while Italy joined later because it wanted to play a role as the EU presidency chair.

Neither country was named by Belgium in its communique, however.

The Belgian interior ministry could not be reached for comment on Thursday to explain the omission.

The Belgians say the new plan, details of which remain confidential, entails using existing tools like the Schengen Information System (SIS), the EU’s police agency Europol, passenger name records, and targeted border controls.

But the EU source noted that it is likely to run into technical and political problems.

He said member states will need to agree on a definition of what constitutes a foreign fighter.

“If you are Syrian and you go and see your brother in Syria, are you a foreign fighter then or are you just a young man who has family abroad and misses them a lot?”

Belgium’s interior minister is due to present the plan to all 28 EU countries in October.

But there is risk the initiative could sow discontent.

The EU contacts said other member states had wanted to join the core team from the beginning. But Belgium said No in order to keep the format small for the sake of easier co-operation.

For its part, France on Wednesday also proposed a new anti-terror bill to prevent suspected pro-jihadists from leaving the country.

The bill entitles authorities to confiscate passports and impose a six-month travel ban on suspects.

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