This is Wednesday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.
Olivier Martins, right, speaks to reporters after a hearing on a terrorism case earlier this year.
A day after Fayçal Cheffou was freed by Belgian authorities after an investigative judge determined there was insufficient evidence that he was the third conspirator in last week’s bombing of Brussels airport, his lawyer Olivier Martins made the case in the court of public opinion about why he believes his client is innocent. Speaking on Belgian state television, Mr Martins said Mr Cheffou’s key alibi was his phone records, which showed he had made and received calls at home at the time of the bombing. “The judge carried out these checks [of phone records] immediately and, apparently, these checks proved to be exculpatory,” he said.
Mr Martins confirmed what had been reported in the Belgian press: that the main piece of evidence against his client was the testimony of the taxi driver who unwittingly drove the three bombers to the airport on the morning of the attack. Mr Martins said he challenged the identification, arguing that from airport CCTV footage it was clear the “third man” who was walking alongside the two known suicide bombers was wearing a hat and oversized glasses – a possible disguise. Could the taxi driver really recognise a man in disguise?
He also asked whether investigators had compared fingerprints or DNA taken from the baggage trolley the “third man” was seen pushing in the CCTV video. During the hearing, Mr Martins said the investigating judge acknowledged: “We have the trolley.” But the judge did not reveal whether investigators had compared fingerprints and DNA on the trolley with Mr Cheffou’s. Read more
This is Tuesday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.
What else could possibly go wrong? After days of revelations that Belgian intelligence had all three Brussels suicide bombers on their radar — or at least should have had them on their radar — well before they detonated their explosives, authorities seemed to be able to claim one significant victory: less than 48 hours after the attacks, they netted the last remaining big fish. The plotter known as the “man in white” or the “man in the hat” because of the cream-coloured jacket and floppy headwear he was wearing in Brussels airport CCTV footage was captured on Thursday evening right in front of the federal prosecutors office. Or so prosecutors thought.
Instead, an investigating judge ordered the man, Fayçal Cheffou, released yesterday after the initial evidence he was the third airport conspirator could not be corroborated by DNA and fingerprints. Instead, investigators are back where they started, appealing to the public for information about the man who appears in the grainy CCTV pictures next to the two already identified as airport bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui. After only releasing stills of the footage last week, Belgian federal police yesterday decided to put out the actual video on YouTube, showing the “man in white” nonchalantly pushing his luggage cart through the airport’s departure hall as he casually chats with Bakraoui and Laachraoui. The suitcase bomb on his cart never detonated, and he is believed to have fled the scene. Read more
This is Monday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.
Is Fayçal Cheffou the “man in white,” the third conspirator captured on CCTV footage just before last week’s Brussels airport attack pushing a baggage cart next to the two suicide bombers? Belgian prosecutors are operating under that assumption after charging him with terrorist murders on Saturday, but they have yet to formally name him as the man who dropped off the largest bomb at Zaventem airport but later fled after it failed to detonate.
The Belgian press was filled with accounts of Mr Cheffou’s recent activities, including attempts to radicalise migrants who were seeking shelter at a refugee camp in central Brussels. Some accounts have described Mr Cheffou as a freelance journalist, but the only real evidence of that is a video posted to YouTube where he reports on Muslim detainees at a Belgian facility who were allegedly protesting over being given daytime meals during Ramadan.
The charges against Mr Cheffou were just one in a series of moves by law enforcement across Europe to roll up members of the Islamic State network at the weekend. Yesterday alone, Belgian prosecutors brought charges against a man for his role in a Paris terrorist plot broken up by French police last week; Italian police arrested another man on allegations he helped Isis terrorists obtain false residency permits; and just last night Dutch police rounded up a third man in Rotterdam on charges related to the failed Paris attack.
The FT’s security correspondent Sam Jones has a look at whether all the recent arrests are evidence that the Isis network in Europe is far bigger than security services originally believed. In its account of the Europe-wide manhunt, the Wall Street Journal reports French and Belgian authorities have sought US assistance as they attempt to map out the full breadth of the cell. Read more
Belgian’s interior minister Jan Jambon has called it a double erreur – the failure of either the Belgian justice ministry or its Turkish liaison officer to properly handle information provided by Ankara about Ibrahim El Bakraoui, the Brussels airport suicide bomber.
Turkish officials say they deported El Bakraoui, a Belgian national, to the Netherlands in July after picking him up near the Syrian border and informing the Dutch government of his ties to extremists. Read more
Welcome to the Tuesday edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.
A Belgian soldier patrols the grounds of Brussels airport on Tuesday morning
Belgian authorities this morning are still hunting for a man they believe is on the run after participating in yesterday’s attack on Brussels’ international airport, and have been focusing their investigation on the city’s Schaerbeek neighbourhood after a raid there turned up an explosive device, chemicals and an Islamic State flag. Late last night, the federal police posted new photos of the two other suspects in the airport bombing, who federal prosecutors said are believed to have killed themselves in twin suicide attacks, which has left at least 14 dead. [UPDATE: Belgian broadcaster RTBF has identified the two suicide suspects as brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui.]
According to Dernière Heure, a Brussels legal tabloid that broken several key angles in the investigation, police were led to the Schaerbeek flat by the taxi driver who unwittingly drove the three attackers to the airport yesterday morning. The paper also says it was the same driver who led investigators to a third, unexploded bomb in a suitcase at the airport; he told police that the three men had carried a lot more bags than just the two that had blown up.
Less is known about the bombing of a metro at the Maalbeek station in the Belgian capital’s EU quarter. Thus far, authorities have released little information other than that at least 20 were killed in that attack, which occurred about an hour after the initial bombs went off at the airport. Eyewitnesses said the explosives went off just as the train was pulling into Maalbeek and survivors had to pry open the doors to get out of the carriage. Read more
A few weeks ago, the EU agreed an historic overhaul of its troubled common fisheries policy, setting binding deadlines to end decades of over-fishing that have depleted stocks from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.
But just when it seemed safe to go back in the water, the European parliament’s fisheries committee threatened to take a bite out of the reform on Wednesday. By a 12 to 11 margin, the committee approved an amendment allowing the use of up to €1.6bn in EU funds to help build new fishing boats.
The subsidies fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that the EU’s 83,000-vessel fleet is already far too large, and in need of a drastic cut – some say by half – in order to allow stocks to recover.
“For anyone with a brain this is completely outrageous and very difficult to understand,” said Markus Knigge, a fisheries advisor to the Pew Charitable Trust, citing estimates that the money could result in 19,000 new boats. Read more
Predicting what Germany will do in a negotiation is fast becoming the Brussels equivalent of soothsaying. Tuesday’s tetchy banking union talks set off yet another diplomatic stampede to consult the ouija boards, throwing canes and tarot cards in order to find out what Berlin really wants.
Were the strident objections of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, just negotiating tactics? A manifestation of German domestic politics? Or are they red lines that will require the reforms to create a single banking supervisor to be totally recast or significantly delayed? We’ve consulted the FT Brussels Blog Oracle (and a few diplomats) to draw up these two scenarios.
The Germans are digging in: no deal this year
There was genuine shock at Schäuble’s intervention. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of finance ministers, four EU ambassadors predicted to us that a deal — or partial agreement — was at hand. That was until Schäuble spoke. He opened with a dispute that officials thought was close to being resolved: whether small banks fall under the ECB’s supervision responsibilities. Don’t think this will pass the German parliament, he warned.
More worrying for some was his next point. Read more
Over at the socialist gathering held in a conference centre overlooking an ornate garden in the centre of Brussels, a gaggle of reporters – and a few bemused tourists – clustered around Jean-Marc Ayrault, the new French prime minister, as he arrived for the meeting.
Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives at the meeting of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Reuters
UPDATE: The demonstrations are already turning nasty. Near the Belgian prime minister’s office, protesters are throwing rocks at riot police, who have opened water cannons on them.
It’s summit day (again!) in Brussels, and for Europe’s presidents and prime minsters gathering this afternoon, the unexpected collapse of the Portuguese government and the ongoing infighting over the Libyan campaign is likely to dominate deliberations behind closed doors.
But those of us without the benefit of a security detail and Belgian motorcycle outriders will have to deal with something far more onerous: thousands of Belgian demonstrators who are expected to clog Brussels’ city centre to protest European austerity measures and the failure of Belgian political leaders to form a government.
A quick morning wander through the city’s EU quarter reveals Belgian security forces armed to the teeth, complete with gas masks, body armour, riot helmets and plexiglass shields. Helicopters buzz overhead. Two Belgian army soldiers were even spotted wandering through the atrium of Justis Lipsius, the EU building where the summit is held. Read more
It will be Luxembourg that will have the final say on Brussels versus Strasbourg, now that Paris has decided to sue under Lisbon.
In other words, the fight over the seat of the European Parliament has suddenly become a full-blown EU inter-institutional brawl.
The French government on Tuesday decided to take the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg after parliamentarians last week decided to tweak the terms of their regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg. Paris claims the move violates the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, its governing constitution. Read more
As you’d expect, European Union leaders were quick to congratulate David Cameron on his appointment as British prime minister. But for all the warm words, they will be watching his first moves on the European stage like hawks.
An important test will come next week at a meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels. There the UK will find itself under pressure from a majority of countries to agree to new arrangements tightening the regulation of hedge funds and private equity. Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is desperate to get the deal done next week, having helped out Gordon Brown’s Labour government by delaying it until the British election was out of the way. But will the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition be inclined to sign up to such an important measure so soon into its period of office? Read more
With good reason the eurozone’s political leaders have been criticised for reacting too slowly to the Greek sovereign debt crisis. But what’s new about that? Slowness often seems to be a defining feature of Europe’s approach to policymaking.
Consider the proposals that are in the air for the creation of a European Monetary Fund to manage Greek-style crises in the future. There is widespread support for such a fund, ranging from the European Commission to Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s centre-right finance minister, and socialists in the European Parliament. Read more
At last week’s European Union summit in Brussels, most people were so focused on the Greek debt crisis that they missed an interesting development on the sidelines. This was an informal proposal from Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, to convene summits of EU heads of state and government once a month.
It would be a significant departure from the way the EU conducts its affairs. At present the EU holds four scheduled summits a year, usually in March, June, October and December. Since the financial crisis erupted in 2007-08, there have been various emergency summits as well. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who ran the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2008, holds the record for calling unscheduled summits. Apart from those dealing with the financial crisis, he also convened one in response to Russia’s war with Georgia. Read more
Whether it’s climate change, foreign policy or the increasingly alarming fiscal crisis, the European Union’s difficulties can be summed up in one word: disunity. After December 1, when the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into force, disunity was supposed to be a thing of the past. Instead, disunity has proved to be very much a thing of the present. What’s more, the Lisbon treaty may – at least in the short term – be making matters worse.
Take the world conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December. According to Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s incoming climate change commissioner, disunity – in the sense of a cacophony of European voices – was an important factor behind the ability of other powers to brush aside the EU’s views. “Those last hours in Copenhagen, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US each spoke with one voice, while Europe spoke with many different voices. Sometimes we spend so much time agreeing with one another that when finally the EU comes to the international negotiations, we are almost unable to negotiate,” she told her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last month. Read more
Are they just teething problems? Or is something more serious at stake? One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.
Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake. Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros. At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not. She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort. However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti. A perfectly sensible response. Read more
How many days can a Spanish kite stay in the air? About four, to judge from the speed with which Germany and the UK have shot down a proposal from José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister, to introduce binding mechanisms to enforce economic reform in the European Union.
The short lifespan of Zapatero’s brainwave, which he unveiled last Thursday in Madrid, is hardly surprising. Not that it’s an especially bad idea – in principle. Deep in their hearts, most European policymakers know the EU would benefit from closer fiscal and economic policy co-ordination, particularly in the eurozone. They also know that the lesson from the EU’s ill-starred Lisbon agenda, which notoriously set out – and failed - to turn the bloc into the world’s most competitive economy by 2010, is that it was all too easy for governments to pay lip service to reform without doing much about it in practice (except for the virtuous Nordic countries). Read more
What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union? With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.
What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously. Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more
Seen from continental Europe, one of the biggest questions of 2010 concerns David Cameron, leader of the UK’s opposition Conservative party. The Tories are widely expected to win the forthcoming British election, but few European Union politicians can claim with confidence to know where he truly stands on the all-important matter of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
The lack of clarity isn’t helped by the Tories’ distant relationship with their fellow EU centre-right parties. I am in Bonn at a congress of the European People’s Party, the leading centre-right party group. Everyone who matters is here: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Herman Van Rompuy (the newly appointed full-time EU president)… Countries from Malta to Latvia and Georgia to Croatia are represented. But there are no Conservative party politicians at all here – not Cameron, not William Hague, his shadow foreign secretary, not Kenneth Clarke, the only authentically pro-EU voice in the shadow cabinet. Read more