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Belgium’s terror attack blunders tarnish its upcoming EU presidency

Belgium’s terror attack blunders tarnish its upcoming EU presidency

by host

BRUSSELS — Belgium had big plans for its upcoming Council presidency. But its handling of the October 16 shooting spree by Tunisian gunman Abdesalem Lassoued, which left two Swedish football supporters dead, has since led to a series of embarrassing revelations.

Lassoued was living residing in the country as an undocumented migrant after Belgian authorities reject his asylum claim in 2020, and was known to law enforcement for “suspicious activities.” His country of origin, Tunisia, had even asked for his extradition — a fact missed by the country’s judicial system. Belgium’s justice minister quit while the country’s interior affairs and asylum and migration ministers had to appear twice before lawmakers to explain why they, too, shouldn’t resign.

For Belgium it’s been an awkward lead-up to its Council presidency, having wanted to impress in those very areas where it has now clearly failed: migration and the fight against organized crime.

At first, Belgium saw elements of the Brussels attack as further justification of its presidency priorities.

Lassoued had been denied asylum in October 2020, but a letter telling him to leave Belgium was never delivered. The blunder illustrated how European countries struggle to organize forced returns, in which they are also dependent on countries of origin.

Making “good arrangements with other countries, also with regards to the countries of origin” would be a Belgian priority during its presidency, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said a day after the attack.

Two days later, during a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, De Croo upped the ante, declaring that the “highest priority” was bringing the EU’s asylum and migration pact to “a successful end.”

But a day later, on October 20, it emerged Tunisia had asked for his extradition.

That request gathered dust in the office of a Brussels prosecutor — triggering the resignation of Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, who earlier had lamented Belgium’s security services faced “an unwillingness by certain North African countries to take back their illegal [migrants].”

Experts say Belgium remains credible on the subject of forced returns but concede the stakes have been raised for its EU presidency.

“This is embarrassing, but these events happen very often and there’s a certain understanding for that. This could have happened in other countries as well,” said Hendrik Vos, professor of European studies at Ghent University. “The willingness to finish [the migration pact] will be even bigger.”

Speaking to reporters ahead of the European Council, De Croo also denied the snafu would impact Belgium’s credibility.

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne resigned in the days after the attack | Remko de Waal/EFE via EPA

“Yes, indeed, the person we’re speaking of, there was an extradition request, but he was also illegal. He was illegal before. It’s true that the Belgian discussion has moved, but the problem remains: there’s an enormous amount of people that got the order to leave the country.”

An attempt by Belgium and Sweden during the European Council this week to tweak the text on terrorism and migration was rejected by other countries.

Lassoued’s rampage also raised other pressing questions, such as: How was he able to get his hands on the semi-automatic rifle he used in his attack?

On Thursday it became clear that Lassoued might have had help in obtaining the weapon. A fellow Tunisian, identified only as Lamjed K., was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder during an act of terrorism, as well as with participating in the activities of a terrorist organization.

“He can possibly be linked to the weapon used,” the prosecutor’s office said in a press release.

The developments also question whether Belgium is doing enough to combat illegal arms trafficking, which is essential to organized crime. Combatting organized crime, especially drug trafficking, is another priority of Belgium’s presidency, Interior Affairs Minister Annelies Verlinden told POLITICO in May.

But critics say illegal arms trafficking is not a priority for security forces in Belgium itself.

“You see that in the daily handling of those files. If you have a seizure of drugs, of cocaine, and a couple of guns, then there’s a lot of attention for the drugs, figuring out where this is coming from, but there’s much less examination of the gun,” said Nils Duquet, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, in the wake of Lassoued’s attack.

Camille Gijs, Barbara Moens and Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

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