Look out: Dissent is growing in Brussels against coronavirus vaccines and restrictions.
A protest on Sunday, the latest in a long line dating back to last year, represented a major escalation, with police estimating that 50,000 people gathered for a demonstration that quickly turned violent. Police used water cannons and tear gas to repel protesters who were throwing paving stones and firecrackers during running battles with officers.
The offices of the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service, were damaged in the riot. Three policemen and 12 protesters have been hospitalized, though none with life-threatening injuries.
Here are the issues and what’s at stake:
What are the protests about?
People aren’t happy about continuing coronavirus restrictions, the lack of public debate around these, and potentially making vaccines mandatory. Most of all, they say they want their freedoms back.
Demonstrators have also indicated their wider distrust of authorities, and wariness of digital tools such as QR codes for entry to restaurants or cultural venues, which they view as a weakening of civil liberties.
Belgium’s government had on Friday announced that it would gradually ease coronavirus restrictions, with bars and restaurants being allowed later opening hours and sports stadiums permitted to host outdoor events.
Who are the organizers?
A motley group of organizations were involved in calling the protest, including World Wide Demonstration for Freedom and Europeans United. The movements gather participants from other EU countries, such as France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. One of their main requests is to “regain our freedom together.”
Representatives from far-right movements, such as Feniks and Civitas, were also among the participants. Dries Van Langenhove, an MP from the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and founder of the Flemish nationalist youth movement Schild & Vrienden, also took part in the march.
Tom Meert, the chairman of Europeans United, calls for “a full and open debate in which all voices, especially the opposing voices, are heard.”
Similar protests took place in other major European cities over the weekend, including Stockholm and Barcelona, where no major incidents were reported.
What are the authorities doing?
Reacting to the violence, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Facebook that “our society will never accept indiscriminate violence, least of all against our law enforcement.” He added that “those involved on Sunday will be prosecuted.”
A spokesperson for Brussels mayor Philippe Close said that while 50,000 protested on Sunday, only around 300 were there to “cause problems,” though videos posted on social media showed widespread disorder around the Cinquantenaire park.
According to the latest figures from the police, 228 people were arrested to maintain public order and 11 were detained on the grounds of vandalism and confrontation with the police. The majority of people arrested were from Belgium, but there were also Germans, French, Dutch and Polish arrested.
Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said on Belgian radio on Monday morning that police are currently analyzing surveillance footage to identify other offenders.
What to expect next?
Europeans United announced during the protest that they will launch a petition calling for the resignation of the government. The group has not yet communicated about any future protests and did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.
A spokesperson for the police said it wasn’t yet known when future demonstrations would take place.
The Brussels mayor’s spokesperson said there will be other requests for future protests, as per usual in Brussels, but authorities will look to “work with the people who follow the march route.”