European ‘freedom convoy’ eyes major protest in Brussels

You might want to reconsider going for a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day in Brussels — as the city is likely to be completely paralyzed.

A coordinated pan-European convoy of anti-vaccine protestors is expected to descend on Brussels on February 14. Brussels police are gearing up should the demonstration turn violent as others have done — but they admit being somewhat in the dark about protesters’ plans.

A spokesperson for Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told POLITICO that local law enforcement was closely following the “calls for demonstrations.” But she said that “despite the monitoring, it is not obvious to find out what the exact plans of the European Freedom Convoy are, as well as to estimate the exact size of the movement.”

The protestors have a clear goal: to disrupt Brussels as much as possible in protest against anti-COVID-19 measures taken by national governments and the European Union.

It is unclear how many demonstrators from across the 27-country bloc will reach the Belgian capital, but tens of thousands of people have spent weeks planning the February 14 protest. Many have used encrypted messaging services like Telegram to plan routes, share logistics support and raise funds for what some hope will be a weeks-long push to snarl the EU’s bureaucratic capital, based on POLITICO’s review of more than 30 Telegram channels associated with the upcoming protest.

The group has not yet submitted a formal authorization request to the Brussels police and mayor Philippe Close, according to his spokesperson. “Generally, we always try to have a contact to be able to work something out. At the moment, there are no requests but we always remain alert,” she added.

The Brussels police, who will be on the front line of any protest, is “monitoring the situation on social media,” said a spokesperson who declined to comment on the scale of forces due to be deployed that day.

The federal police, which oversees all local police forces, said that although it had preparatory meetings, it was “too soon to say” what to expect on the day as they didn’t have “a clear picture of the number of trucks yet. ”

These groups — who hail from all 27 member countries and have close ties to similar anti-COVID-19 movements in North America, Australia and beyond — are channeling the anger of a vocal minority of Europeans who believe it is unlawful to mandate coronavirus vaccinations or restrict people’s movements to protect public health.

Belgian police are coordinating with authorities in neighboring countries over the convoy, the interior ministry spokesperson added.

In previous anti-COVID-19 demonstrations, far-right groups, notably from Germany and France, have tried to piggyback on the mobilizations to spread more hateful messages around immigrants, Jews and other minority groups, based on POLITICO’s review of reams of social media content from the last two years.

Most of the efforts have been led by grassroots offline organizations and even individuals in specific EU countries that have rallied others to join them on the regionwide march on Brussels.

Europeans United for Freedom, an EU-wide network that organized a Brussels protest last month against the coronavirus restrictions but is not organizing the convoy, voiced support for the demonstration. Tom Meert, the chairman of the group, said that although Europeans United are not organizing it, they will publicize it. For January 23, “we made 3 months of publicity, for this [protest], one week. But I think it sells itself as it is really popular in our movement,” he said.

Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism and has been following the mobilization, said that European protestors had taken inspiration from ongoing protests in Canada against vaccine and mask mandates.

“The danger is they are copying what has happened in Canada at the center of EU power,” he said. “The movement is conspiracy-fueled and pedaling blatant misinformation. That’s a risk everyone should be keeping an eye on.”

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