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How the issues of migration and asylum are reshaping the politics of Belgium

Ahmad Abu Sen

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It was a big surprise for many people seeing the Belgian government break up after intensive negotiations between all parties involved. Mr. Charles Michel , the prime minister, representing the center-right and liberal parties supporting the UN Migration Compact on the one hand, Mr. Theo Francken (State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration) and his N-VA-colleagues occupying ministerial posts within the government strongly opposing the Compact on the other hand. The NV-A (New Flemish Alliance) even threatened to leave the government if Mr. Michel insisted on approving the Compact, hoping that by doing such, Belgium would not approve the Compact or at least abstain.

Through his political career as a State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration Mr. Francken demonstrated a very strict policy towards migrants and asylum seekers as well as refugees. By implementing extremely tough measurements, he hoped to limit the numbers of asylum seekers who choose Belgium as the final destination of their long often journey of hardship and misery.

Starting from discharging massive campaign  against refugees and asylum seekers in media, social media and even his own twitter account, executing one of the largest deportation action in Europe, to his putting a limit on the number of daily asylum applications by only allowing 60 people per day submit such claim, the latter sparking widespread anger. All of these procedures aimed solely at making Belgium less attractive a country of destination for asylum seekers, as Mr.Francken himself expressed. The strategy he maintained throughout his time in office was and is a clear reflection of the party he represents, the N-VA which has recently used improper photos for its campaign which they took form a campaign launched by one of the notoriously well-known extreme right German party.

The clearly incoherent cabinet, later to be known as Michel I,  survived for almost 4 years with visible discordant voices, though. It all started with “marathonic” negotiations to form the new government in 2014. At the time the N-VA , the relatively new formed party , won the largest number of seats among other parties in federal Belgian parliament , beating the deeply rooted Belgian  parties like the Christian democrats, the liberals, the socialists and the green. Allied with the Christian democrats  and the liberals the new Flemish alliance could successfully form the new cabinet.

The newly formed cabinet, at the time, would soon be hit by a series of problems, migration wise, amongst which the huge influx of refugees in 2015, which some refer to as the ‘asylum crisis’, was the first one. Apparently there were different voices within the government on how to handle the matter. The right wing was overwhelmed by the public pressure  to present a humane solution for these poor people  in the Maximilian Park. The park , which will play a central role in the shaping of Mr.Francken’s migration policy at a later stage, was in 2015 a place where over the course of several months thousands of asylum seekers took shelter including elderly, women and children while awaiting their asylum claim to be registered.  A Park that over time has also become be synonymous to a different approach on migration.

Soon after the biggest influx of asylum seekers in the history of the Belgian kingdom, a phenomenon that had existed  for decades started to draw public attention, the phenomenon of transmigration, people on the run who are in Belgium but only plan to stay there temporarily awaiting a change to get to the United Kingdom or another European country. The Maximilian Park became a meeting point for these people on the run who are mainly originary from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia and who range from young children (as young as 12 years old) to grown-up men and women. Being forced out if their little tents in Calais and Dunkirk, they found themselves in the heart of the Belgian capital, profiting from the presence of international bus lines at the nearby Brussels-North railway station to try and get to the United Kingdom clandestinely. Or using the national railway network to get to local ports or highway parking lots to get aboard lorries or containers, hoping these would set course for the United Kingdom. Living conditions in the Park being in human, soon a citizen’s platform of hundreds of families willing to offer a place to eat and sleep to these people on the run emerged. This initiative was wildly criticized by the right wing and hardliners in the country . The police force was on high alert especially in the surroundings of the Park and the earlier mentioned Brussels North station.

New tough measurements were introduced including a wide spread man hunt for the (transmigrants) by the police, a scheme which was designed by both the Home Office and the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration. The photos of young men handcuffed ignited public outcry asking for a humane solution rather than arresting the unknowing migrants.  In the meantime Mr. Francken was bringing up even more sensitive issue for the public. With his broad scheme of deportation and his record number that no minister of migration has reached before, he began to lock up asylum seekers who failed to get their claims accepted by authorities as well as people who stay in Belgium illegally in detention centers as a step to deport them to their homeland soon after. A step which was widely criticized keeping in mind that families with children were also locked up.  The European supreme court issued a statement that this step contradicts the European laws and firmly stated that (you cannot lock up children in detention centers).

Among other things Mr. Francken also tried to introduce a separate social security system for refugees so they would receive lower social benefits than the Belgians, his attempt was doomed to fail due to the strict European equality laws.

The internal conflict within the government, reached its peak with the issue of signing the UN Migration Compact. With strong  opposition from the N-VA (which only started to criticize the Compact after 2 years of negotiations and after a formal approval by – amongst others – their own government ministers earlier on in 2018) and the willingness to sign it from its counterparts, many analysts expected the end of the coalition. N-VA constantly threatened to withdraw from the government if Michel insisted on going to Marrakesh to approve the Compact  . Michel decided to consult the parliament as a whole about the issue and the Compact was approved of by a majority of government and opposition parties, except the N-VA and the far-right Vlaams Belang.

Shortly after Michel travelled to Marrakesh and stated there Belgium approves of the pact. A collective resignation from N-VA ministers took place only one day before. A new State’s Secretary of Asylum and Migration was appointed, Mrs. Maggie De Block. Mrs. De Block introduced her first day at the office by declaring that she would l abolish Mr. Francken’s 60 asylum applications per day policy. She also promised to clear the mess in the federal asylum department ,known as FEDASIL , in order to fetch more places in the reception centers for the new asylum seekers. Furthermore, she gave her orders to offline the social media anti-asylum campaign.

It is a bit early to judge and to determine whether there is actually a new asylum policy, but it is crystal clear that the new State’s Secretary has come with a different tone. The coming months will reveal more about the new adapted policy.

While Mrs. De Block was busy clearing the mess in her new ministry, Mr. Michel’s new government, also known as Michel II, has failed to gain trust from the parliament. Both N-VA and Vlaams Belang are calling for early elections. The King himself has intervened to put an end to the chaos. He consoled all the parties except the extreme right wing Vlaams Belang.

Whether there will be early elections or not, the federal elections of 2019 will definitely shape the new governmental façade of Belgium including its migration and asylum policy. But more importantly the issue of migration and asylum will be heavily present in the parties programs. So it is not only the politics changing migration, but migration changing politics as well.

Policy officer at Flanders Refugee Action (Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen) Syrian, Freelance journalist/blogger and lecturer Writes in Arabic and English

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Strong support of president Putin to Serbia

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Serbia was visited on June 3 by the first man of Russian Duma and one of the closest associates of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The arrival of Vyacheslav Volodin in Belgrade just a few days after the brutal intrusion of Albanian special forces in the north of Kosovo and amid strong pressure on Serbia ahead of the announced meetings in Paris in early July, sends a clear message. That message could be heard at a special session of the Serbian National Assembly:

“Brotherly Serbian people, as always, can count on Russia’s help!”

This statement of Vyacheslav Volodin is extremely important because this was a message of Vladimir Putin to the Serbian people. As Vyacheslav Volodin pointed out, Vladimir Putin knew that he would speak in the Serbian parliament, so he personally sent greetings and words of support to Serbian people.

During the visit to Serbia, the Russian official praised Serbia`s economic improvement, adding that success is even greater since it has been achieved in dificult geopolitical circumstances. Vyacheslav Volodin, stated in Belgrade that the “intrusion“ of Kosovo`s special forces into the north of Kosovo was aimed at frightening the Serbs, establishing control there by force, adding that the Serbs could count on Russian help in future.

Also Volodin said that the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 should be respected. He stressed that Russia will not support the moves of the EU and the United States, that would lead to tensions.

“We believe that all parties must respect Resolution 1244, and those who do not, must be responsible. The interests of sovereign Serbia must be respected in accordance with international law,” Volodin said.

„The UN should express its stand. Its authority and also peace in the Balkans depend on its determination and concrete moves,“ Volodin also stated in Serbia`s Parliament. He criticised the European Union and US behaviour and added that „the absence of clear EU reaction to Pristina`s provocations raises doubt the bloc is capable to mediate in the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue on normalisation of relations. Volodin said that some states adopted a practise of double standards and openly interfere with the internal issues of other states.

“ We think that is unacceptable. It is necessary to confront that if we want to preserve our nation, country, its sovereignty and independence,“ Volodin said, mentioning Libya and Iraq as examples.

Speaking about the relation between the two nations, he said that the Russians, always felt they were obliged to help and protect the Serbs. Later, Volodin had a meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and invited him to address Duma, next time when he visit Moscow.

Vucic accepted, saying it would be a great honor for him to talk about the relations between Serbia and Russia in front of Duma members.

Volodin  also announced that  Free Trade Agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union and Serbia can be signed by the end of the year. Currently, more than 800 companies with Russian capital operate in the territory of Serbia.

The message of Vyacheslav Volodin about Kosovo is in line with the message that President Vladimir Putin has been repeating for years.  The views of the President of Russia on the issue of Kosovo are not changing since the beginning of the crisis:

– February 2008 – The case of Kosovo is a terrible precedent that essentially breaks out the entire system of international relations, which was created not for decades, but for centuries.

– May 2018. – Vucic asked Putin to help Serbia in the UN and other international organizations, on what was answered that Moscow will actively monitor the talks between Belgrade and Pristina and the influence of various parameters on that issue.

–  January 2019 – Moscow is in favor of a mutually acceptable solution of Belgrade and Pristina, but based on UN Resolution 1244.

–  January 2019 – Resolution 1244 does not allow the existence of any armed formations in Kosovo other than the United Nations contingent.

However, despite the clear position of Russia on Kosovo, Serbian President takes a different policy. The goal of Aleksandar Vucic is the “demarcation” between Serbs and Albanians. And for a long time he has been secretly negotiating with the President of the self-proclaimed Kosovo Hashim Thaci. And, so far Vucic’s policy towards Kosovo has been catastrophic and has caused great damage to Serbian national interests.

By signing Brussels agreements, Vucic destroyed the defense of northern Kosovo, giving police and civil protection to Pristina. This denied the right of Serbs to self-defense, and he himself is not able to protect them. Recent events in the north of Kosovo, especially in Zubin Potok, are the direct result of the capitulation of the national and state policy of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic towards Kosovo. Vucic aim is to force the Serbian people to accept an independent Kosovo. After recognition of Kosovo, Serbia would accelerate its full membership in NATO. Already today some associates of Aleksandar Vucic say that Serbia is surrounded by NATO, and that Serbia must adjust its policy according to the situation. If that were to happen it would be another geopolitical blow to Russia, which would be completely cut off from the Baltic to the Adriatic and the Black Sea. Therefore, NATO could further increase pressure on Russia.

 From our partner International Affairs

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Candidates for European Commission President: Who is who

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Photo: European Parliament

The race for President of the European Commission has got under way. According to the rules which are questioned by many in the European Union but have so far enjoyed majority support in the European Parliament, the new head of the “executive branch” of the European Union will be elected from among the “top candidates” (Spitzenkandidat) – those nominated by European parties which have factions in the European Parliament. A candidate will finally become President of the European Commission after he receives support from EU leaders in the European Council (the Council is currently headed by former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, known for his paranoic attitude towards Russia) – this procedure should be over in June. A formal approval by the European Parliament should come next.

So who has the biggest chances and what are the political platforms of potential winners?

Judging by arithmetics, the leader of the European People’s Party (former Democratic Christians) faction in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, is in the lead. His faction remains the largest, albeit smaller in number than before,  in Parliament – 180 members. A Bavarian,  Weber is 46 years old, and is considered to have been promoted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He seems to be at odds with his patroness Merkel, who supports the Nord Stream – 2 project. Last year he spoke out strongly against this project, which envisages the transportation of Russian gas to Western Europe across the bottom of the Baltic Sea: “I am against this project. It does not meet the interests of the European Union,” –  he said on April 23, 2018, in an interview with the Polska Times newspaper which was quickly picked up by news agencies.

However, analysts do not rule out a certain discrepancy of conduct on the part of Merkel, who continue to support Weber’s candidacy even after the above statement. Apparently, Merkel  has no intention of becoming the one responsible for  “burying” the Nord Stream,  which is so profitable for the German business. However, if this project is ruined by the head of the European Commission nominated by her, she will be able to get out of it safe. She would explain such a result by a “clash of opinions that is natural for democracy”.  Nord Stream-2 is the only project which the United States doesn’t approve but which Merkel supports in words. (Normally, in matters of principle, Angela Merkel does not tolerate any differences of opinion within the ruling team in the Federal Republic of Germany.)

However, as remarked by the EU Observer website, close to the Brussels-based globalist elite, Merkel may refuse to back Weber at the last moment – two Germans will not be allowed to occupy the two key positions in the EU – head of the European Commission and chairman of the European Central Bank. Moreover,  Merkel wants to put Jens Weidman, the current head of the Central Bank of Germany, in charge of the European Central Bank.

The second most likely candidate is Margrethe Vestager of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party. The party’s faction, which has 109 members after the elections, is the third most powerful and is known for its anti-Russian position. The leader of the ALDE faction, Belgian Guy Verhofstadt, who is officially the main “spin doctor” of Mrs. Vestager, made a statement unacceptable from the diplomatic point of view on the global Internet resource Project Syndicate before the recent elections to the European Parliament. He accused his colleagues in the European Parliament – representatives of a number of sovereign European countries (Italy, Great Britain, Hungary)  – of being the “fifth column” of Russia in the EU. He said: “Just like the illiberalism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the partnership between the European right and Vladimir Putin has been going on for too long.”

Vestager is the European Commissioner for Competition, who has been dubbed “Tax Lady” by President Trump, for her relentless pursuit of alleged monopolies in Europe. Simultaneously, Vestager calls for the extension of sanctions against Russia and for measures against Russian “energy monopolies” in Europe (what is implied by these words is easy to guess – the long demonized by European mass media Gazprom). For these views, Mrs. Vestager is openly admired by the British magazine The Economist, which came out on May 28, 2019 with the headline: “The Iron Lady of Politics from Denmark should lead the European Commission.”

Nevertheless, even Mrs. Vestager’s admirers admit in this issue of the magazine, as well as in other European media that she is unpopular in her home country, in Denmark. At home, Vestager’s candidacy for the highest post in the European Commission was publicly supported only by the leader of a “related” party – the head of the Danish Liberals Lars Lokke Rasmussen. Even Liberals and Social Democrats acknowledge that the EU was unable to protect Denmark from illegal migration,  so since 2016, Copenhagen has maintained “temporary” control on the border with countries of the Schengen zone. Naturally, a lady representing  the “ineffective” EU is unlikely to be loved at home.

Nevertheless, the structure of the current European Union does not require politicians to be popular at home in order to get a high-powered and financially attractive job in the European Commission. What presents interest in this regard is the opinion of Marlene Vind, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen: “The head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, just recently pointed out the need for gender balance in the EU, and this is a strong support for Vestager,” – Wind says. “Besides, you can be 100% sure that not a single Danish prime minister will say no if EU leaders offer a Danish woman such an important position in the EU.”

The third likely candidate with strong chances for success is Dutch Social Democrat, France Timmermans. A representative of the Labor Party of the Netherlands,former foreign minister of the Netherlands, and at present the first vice-president of the European Commission, he is known for his initiatives on sanctions against the Polish “retrogrades” from the “Law and Justice” Party. Timmermans can count on the support of 146 MPs from the Socialists and Democrats. In the early 1990s, he worked at the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, disseminating the “light of democracy” in Russia. Afterward he represented the Netherlands during an inquiry into the crash of the MH-17 aircraft over the Donetsk region in 2014.

From a foreign policy point of view, Timmermans represents the most exotic ideological trend in the European Union – he is dreading an “union of Putin and Trump,” which, along with the “rise of nationalist forces in Europe,” could destroy the EU.

In February 2017, already holding the post of European Commissioner Timmermans declared: “We are witnessing a hybrid war, we see it in Ukraine. Will the Baltic countries be next? We bear witness to the return of the threat of a nuclear war. …. And just imagine the Cuban missile crisis played out on Twitter between Presidents Trump and Putin,” – Timmermans said, addressing the Future Force conference. It is unlikely that anyone could have imagined it, but we could attribute it to the speaker’s wild fantasy.

The reverse of Timmermans’paranoic attitude towards Russia is the praise of the European Union, which he glorifies as a kind of unique “ecosystem” of the most civilized and peaceful nations of the planet. Probably, Mr. Timmermans forgot the “civilized” destruction of Yugoslavia by the “peaceful nations” of Europe.

This blend of “green” demagogy and the new “democratic” racism of the forces that won in the last Euro elections (they say Western Europeans are above  other nations thanks to “exclusively” European democratic institutions) is an ideology that is totally hostile to Russia.

The other candidates – Frenchman Michel Barnier, Czech Jan Zahradil and  “green” German Ska Keller – have few chances due to lack of strong factions in the European Parliament.

As it happens, in its relations with the EU Russia should not expect Brussels to change its position in the near future. But, as they say, eternity in politics does not last long. 

From our partner International Affairs

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Tensions in Kosovo: Russia closely monitors the situation

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Police of self proclaimed state of Kosovo launched raids in the early hours of Tuesday morning in the Serbs-majority north of Kosovo, sparking an angry reaction from Serbs.

More than twenty people have been arrested so far. Among those arrested is the chief of police of the village of Zubin Potok. A Kosovo police officer was wounded by a gunshot during the operation, but is not in danger of losing life. Two other officers were also injured, according to doctors in North Mitrovica.

Kosovo Police said that in Zubin Potok(north Kosovo), barricades were set up and tyres set on fire to deter police officers. Kosovo police also stated that the operation was launched to detain suspects who have allegedly been participating in or organizing criminal groups and have been involved in the smuggling of goods, misuse of official positions, bribery and trading in contraband. According to information the operation has nothing to do with the murder of Enver Zymberi, a policeman who was killed in the north of Kosovo eight years ago, nor with the investigation into the death of Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, who was murdered in 2018.

The head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, said on Tuesday morning that the goal was to cause fear and panic.

“This morning, around 6am, special units of the ROSU (Regional Operational Support Unit) stormed in from three directions into the north of Kosovo, into the territory of all four (Serb majority) municipalities, with the aim of intimidating and provoking panic”, Djuric told Tanjug agency. He said that “separatists from Pristina have reached for more terrifying methods to scare Serbs” and want to “create an impossible climate for Serbs in Kosovo”. Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Interior Ministry ordered the Serbian Army to be put on full combat readiness, Tanjug reported. Tanjug also reported that Vucic launched “intensive diplomatic activities” over the raids.

“The president asked Western political authorities to control Pristina and let them know Serbia will not allow ethnic cleansing”, Tanjug said.

A Russian diplomat was also arrested. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia has stated that is unacceptable to arrest a Russia citizen in Kosovo, asking the UN mission in Kosovo for comprehensive information on his arrest and his release.

“The arrest was carried out regardless of the fact that Russian citizen has diplomatic immunity of UN staff. We consider this to be an unacceptable act as another manifestation of the provocation of the Kosovo-Albanian authorities, stated Maria Zakharova, the official spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.The Russian diplomat was released after the protest of Russian Government. However, according to unconfirmed information, he was beaten by the Kosovo Police.

The Russian State Duma instructed its Committee on International Affairs to closely monitor the situation in Serbia because of the intensification of the situation in Kosovo . On the occasion of the incidents in Kosovo, the Russian ambassador to Serbia Alexander Chepurin spoke.

“We strongly condemn the incursion of Kosovo Special Forces in Kosovo-Serb-populated areas. This is extremely dangerous and it’s not in line with all existing agreements, “said Chepurin on Twitter.

The Serbian Armed Forces are in fully combat readiness, and according to the information, its movement under full military equipment was also observed. Serbian combat jet Mig 29 flies over an administrative line with Kosovo.

“If there is any threat to order and the life of people in northern Kosovo, our army will protect our people,” stated Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic.

Concluding Thoughts

Russia is monitoring the situation in Kosovo and is ready to provide support to Serbia. The arrest and beating of Russian citizen Mikhail Krasnoshchekov, which is a member of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, is actually a message to Russia by the West. As stated by the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, the incursion of special forces is another provocation and the establishment of control over the region by force:

” It is clear that such defiant behavior of Kosovars is a direct consequence of many years indulging from EU and the Uited States”,- stated Maria Zakharova.

However, an important role also has Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic. At yesterday’s session in the Serbian Parliament, the President of Serbia, as the basic message to the Serbian people, said that Serbia should accept independent Kosovo. In other words, Vucic is still fighting for demarcation, after which a small part of Kosovo would be left to Serbia. Otherwise, in his opinion, the Albanians will attack the Serbs in Kosovo. The defeatist attitude of the President of Serbia practically encouraged the Albanian separatists to take such a move which we can see today. It is precisely on the issue of Alexander Vucic’s policy towards Kosovo that Russia should take a stronger position. The Russian Foreign Ministry regularly repeats that for Russia the solution of the Kosovo problem is UN Resolution 1244. And this is the correct policy, which is in line with the Russian and Serbian national interests. However, Aleksandar Vucic, contrary to the will of the citizens of Serbia is pursuing his policy towards Kosovo.

  First published in our partner International Affairs

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