Thursday

21st Mar 2019

EU capitals see weekend of tear gas and water cannon

  • Tear gas fired in Brussels, Budapest, and Paris as popular anger boiled over on the streets (Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis)

Ninety people were arrested and six are to face criminal charges following rowdy anti-immigrant protests outside the EU institutions in Brussels on Sunday (16 December).

The unrest came after a fifth Saturday of 'yellow vest' protests in French cities and other anti-government rallies in Hungary in what amounted to be a turbulent weekend in Europe.

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Three of the six people to face charges in Belgium will do so on grounds of vandalising the European Commission's main Berlaymont building in the city's EU district.

Two others will do so for carrying illegal weapons and the final one for possession of narcotics.

The rally was meant to denounce Belgium's support for a UN migration pact, signed last Monday in Marrakech, Morocco.

It saw about 1,000 people gather on the streets, most of them from Flemish-speaking far-right groups, such as the KVHV, NSV, and Voorpost, as well as from the far-right Vlaams Belang political party, two of whose leaders - Tom Van Grieken et Filip Dewinter - took part in the events.

Protesters chanted slogans such as "We're sick of it: close the borders!" and "No jihad in our state!".

They threw stones and metal barriers at police, who fired water cannons.

They also called for the resignation of Belgian prime minister Louis Michel, who signed the UN pact despite fierce opposition from NV-A, a right-wing Flemish party which quit his government coalition in anger, and which also egged on the protests.

The events in Brussels, the EU capital, were mirrored by a fifth weekend of unrest in French cities by the so-called 'yellow vest' movement - people who put on high-visibility jerseys that they normally have in their car in order to show outrage at social inequalities in France.

Some 2,000 people took to the streets in Paris and more than 65,000 joined other protests nationwide.

Police arrested 115 in scuffles in the French capital, where they also used tear gas and water cannon in the tourist centre.

The protests were smaller and less violent than last weekend, when 409 people were wounded and one person died.

But the movement, which has called for referendums on almost all aspects of French policy-making, poses a threat to the authority of French president Emmanuel Macron, whose approval rating is at an all-time low.

It marks a resurgence of far-right feeling, after Macron narrowly defeated nationalist-populist parties in last year's election.

It also poses a wider threat to Europe, after he decided to splurge on welfare in response, in what could see France join Italy in breaking EU fiscal rules.

Further in the east, in Budapest, about 10,000 people also rallied against prime minister Viktor Orban.

They did it in protest at new labour laws, which allow employers to demand up to 400 extra hours of overtime work a year but to pay for it up to three years later.

The so-called 'slave laws' come in the context of Orban's broader attack on judicial independence and EU democratic norms, which has seen his country placed under an EU sanctions procedure.

Police fired tear gas outside the city's main TV station to disperse the crowds.

Orban's spin doctors also blamed the events on a conspiracy by a Hungarian-born and US-based Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, to bring down the government - the Orban government's go-to line in any crisis, which has antisemitic undertones.

EU in sudden turmoil over UN migration pact

A UN migration pact aimed at laying down basic principles for tackling migration on a global level gets caught up in Europe's heated political debate on nationalism and migration, ahead of the May 2019 European elections.

Analysis

Vests & Votes: how protests hit Macron's EP prospects

The 'Yellow Vests' protests have the potential to change the game in the French European Parliament elections, bringing new issues onto the agenda. But the greatest threat, potentially, is to the populist parties on the edges of the political spectrum.

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