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Brussels braces for ‘freedom convoy’ protesting coronavirus restrictions

Brussels braces for ‘freedom convoy’ protesting coronavirus restrictions

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Brussels braces for ‘freedom convoy’ protesting coronavirus restrictions

Protesters from across the European Union are expected to descend on Brussels Monday to object to government COVID-19 policies, including the widespread rollout of vaccines and mask mandates, despite efforts by Belgian authorities to stop the demonstration from throttling the city.

The so-called “European freedom convoy” mimics similar anti-coronavirus protests that have taken root in Canada, the United States and Australia. They have morphed from national demonstrations into a global movement that has become a rallying cry for both anti-vaccination groups, as well as more extremist organizations like white supremacists and far-right political parties.

The Brussels protest — expected to gather near Parc du Cinquantenaire to the west of the city’s EU quarter, based on the group’s social media channels — is going ahead despite local officials’ calls for people to stay away. Brussels city authorities already banned Monday’s demonstration, while law enforcement has prohibited some vehicles from entering the city until Tuesday, according to local media reports.

“We’re doing everything we can to avoid Brussels from getting blocked,” said Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden.

This weekend, French police have engaged in a similar battle. They intercepted hundreds of vehicles and issued almost 300 fines as self-declared “freedom convoys” attempted to enter Paris Saturday. The city’s police mobilized about 7,500 officers between Friday to Monday to prevent traffic blockades.

French police on Sunday flagged some 440 trucks and mobile homes in and around Paris that are likely to drive toward Brussels Monday at 10 a.m., Le Figaro reported.

Tensions are high. An internal investigation has already been announced over a widely-circulated video of one officer, dubbed “Macron’s Cowboy Cop,” pulling a gun to a driver’s head near the Champs Élysées.

In Belgium, current plans call for federal police to monitor traffic on major routes into Brussels. They will first attempt to deter protesters by handing out flyers detailing what is and isn’t allowed, Le Vif reported. Malicious obstruction of traffic carries a maximum 10-year jail term under Belgium law.

Police will attempt to redirect the freedom convoy north into the Brussels Expo’s 10,000 spot Parking Lot C just off the Ring’s 7A exit, near the Heysel plateau.

If groups of drivers begin blocking freeways or insist on heading toward the city center, traffic controls and vehicle towing are possible, according to local media.

Prior agreements prepared with prosecutors will allow those deemed to be violating a host of offenses to be summoned immediately, and in serious cases be brought before an investigating judge for the issuance of arrest warrants, according to Le Vif.

It’s unclear if such efforts will be enough.

Across social media and encrypted messaging services — where the majority of the planning for February 14’s convoy has taken place — online supporters urged people to ignore official warnings to stay away from the Belgian capital. Instead, they called on people to take to the streets to voice their anger about alleged government overreach via coronavirus restrictions like nationwide lockdowns and vaccine mandates.

“They wanted to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds. Next step — Brussels,” a Facebook page associated with French protesters wrote on Sunday with a video of people gathering before heading to the Belgian capital. Protesters decided to coordinate their activities in Brussels in protest at what they see as the EU’s control over how the bloc responds to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Facebook and Telegram, the encrypted social media network, protesters posted logistical support and images of people rallying to the anti-COVID-19 cause in messages seen by POLITICO. In France, local protesters outlined broader demands, including asking people to avoid social networks that didn’t uphold people’s right to free speech and banks that “participate in economic activity in wars and global conflicts.”

With Belgian authorities trying to quell the anti-vaccine demonstration, it’s difficult to determine how many people will participate in Monday’s protests, even as thousands of people, via social media channels created in all 27 member countries, throw their support behind the convoy.

Still, the protests represent the latest in increasingly sophisticated pushback against the EU’s COVID-19 policies. It has galvanized a mixture of existing anti-vaccine groups, far-right politicians, more extremist movements and those who have become radicalized amid roughly two years of the ongoing pandemic.

The upcoming Brussels demonstration follows similar efforts in European national capitals, as well as across North America. Those protests were initially started by truckers protesting local vaccine mandates, but have expanded to include a similar mix of political groups angry at what they believe is government illegally clamping down on people’s freedoms in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis.

America Hernandez contributed reporting.

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