The focus of the protest is the controversial Free Trade Agreement which the US and the EU are currently negotiating, essentially behind closed doors.
There are growing fears among European citizens about the impact the agreement – popularly known as TTIP – will have on European standards.
Concerns include: the erosion of workers’ rights; the privatisation of public services; lower standards on social protection, health and the environment; permitted use of chemicals and production methods currently outlawed in the EU; and the fact that investors will have the right to sue member states which ‘infringe’ their right to free trade in some way.
This is why hundreds of people took to the streets of Brussels this morning in a protest organised by a civil society alliance which brought together workers, trade unions, the unemployed, farmers, artists, NGOs, not-for-profits and activists – in other words, a diverse range of ‘regular’ people.
I was at the start of the protest at 08.00 when there were about 20-30 protesters present – a distinctly unintimidating mix of men, women, young and old – some of whom, like me, probably thought it would be a worthwhile use of their time to show their peaceful opposition to TTIP, on the way to work.
We were soon surrounded by about 100 police officers in full riot gear, including shields. I’m not a novice to protests, but I was shocked at how aggressive and intimidating some of the police were from the get-go, as was the retired woman I had been chatting to.
We both commented on how over the top the police reaction was and in her words, “Belgium is now a police state".
I saw some officers pushing and shoving people for no apparent reason. When I tried to leave at 08.30 (had to get to work after all), one officer told me that I couldn’t, without giving me any reason.
I went to speak to the officer in charge who, to be fair, apologised and said I was free to go.
The Belgian news is now reporting that some 250 arrests have been made. I don’t know what happened after I left, but judging by the behaviour of some of the police this morning, they were already pumped up, and acting in a provocative manner. I am sure they already had the intention of carrying out mass arrests.
It seems that ordinary citizens are now the threat.
Rather than protecting the rights of big business, the police should be protecting the people – including their right to peacefully demonstrate against the lack of transparency and democracy in much of European decision-making, as well as the very genuine threat that TTIP poses to many of the things we have fought for.