Brussels on edge as ‘freedom convoy’ threatens to disrupt city centre and European quarter

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Brussels is on edge as a Canada-inspired “freedom convoy” is expected to descend on the city, threatening to disrupt the centre in open defiance of a ban issued by the public authorities.

The protest movement opposes anti-coronavirus restrictions and vaccination mandates, as well as soaring energy prices, and follows the example of similar demonstrations that had taken place in Canada, the US, the Netherlands, and already reached Paris.

In choosing Brussels, the city that hosts most EU institutions, as their next destination, the self-proclaimed “convoi de la liberté” intends to elevate their grievances to a European level.

Over 1,300 vehicles gathered on Sunday in Lille, France, close to the Belgian border, to prepare for their journey towards Brussels.

Police are carrying out checks at key entry points between Brussels and Flanders to identify and filter out possible disruptors, according to reports from local media.

Those identified as agitators are being re-directed to the site of the Brussels Expo, in the north of the city, where a “static demonstration” is being allowed.

Meanwhile, a small group of protesters arrived on foot at Cinquantenaire Park, close to the EU institutions, carrying national flags and sounding foghorns under the watchful eye of police officers. After being held back by law enforcement, the group moved to Place Sainte-Catherine, a well-known meeting point in the city centre, where a larger crowd gathered and chanted “Liberté!” (“Freedom!”).

The increase in security and surveillance comes four days after Belgian authorities issued a ban on the protest, arguing the participants did not file the necessary request.

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In a joint statement released on Thursday, Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden, Brussels-Capital Region Minister-President Rudi Vervoort and Brussels City Mayor Philippe Close said they were mobilising federal, regional and local resources to prevent the capital from being blocked by the convoy and minimise disruption for ordinary residents and commuters.

“So far we have spotted 4-500 vehicles […] cars, motorhomes, small vans. About thirty have been blocked and others have disbanded,” Close said on Monday morning.

Authorities have advised against travelling to Brussels unless absolutely necessary and preferably using a means of transport other than by car.

“This demonstration is not allowed. Our services are working to ensure that our roads are not blocked. If you have to be in Brussels on Monday, choose public transport,” tweeted Vervoort.

Police are also deployed across the Schuman roundabout, which hosts the headquarters of the European Commission and the EU Council. Wired barricades have bee deployed around the area.

Due to its political symbolism, the Schuman roundabout is often the target of demonstrations, most of which unfold in a peaceful and authorised manner.

The area was scheduled to be cordoned off later this week, as EU and Africa leaders are set to meet in Brussels for a two-day EU-African Union summit.

Meanwhile, the Strasbourg prefecture has also issued an order banning all “undeclared demonstrations” near the European Parliament.

“Several road convoys seem to have formed to reach Strasbourg,” authorities said on Monday.

A ban on the anti-vaccine “freedom convoys” would remain in place until the parliament finished its plenary session on Thursday.

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