Belgium interior minister defends free movement as beach towns ban day trippers amid heatwave
The decision by some Belgium coastal cities to forbid access to their beaches to one-day tourists has prompted Belgian Interior Minister to publicly defend the right of free movement and the right for all citizens to go to the beach, as the country is facing a strong heat wave.
The move to prevent one day tourists came after a fight between young people allegedly coming from Brussels and police forces, last Saturday in the coastal city of Blankenberge.
As the tide came in, the beach got crowded.
Someone complained about the music being too loud.
The mood quickly turned ugly.
Within minutes, dozens of people were battling it out on the sands.
Some beach-goers threw bottles and umbrellas at police officers who intervened.
By Sunday, a "gang of outsiders" was being blamed, and two coastal communities had banned day trippers from the city.
Officers stood ready at railway stations and blocked traffic, turning away people who can't afford to live, work, or pay for hotel reservations in the area.
Three teens, shirtless, still in their swimming gear, were charged with "armed rebellion."
In Brussels, families who cannot afford to leave the heat of the city for several days have to get creative to get some freshness.
In the popular Brussels suburb of Molenbeek a group of inhabitants decided to install swimming pools in the street for their kids to play.
This image of these crowded tiny pools full of cheerful kids contrasts with the now empty beaches of the seaside resort of Knokke-Heist, where golf carts with license plates ply well-kept streets.
Local authorities have banished day-trippers, who include many minorities, from Belgian cities or France from its 15-kilometre (10-mile) stretch of sands until the heat wave is over.
Down a tree-lined street, at a home that he says dates from Napoleonic times, the mayor - Count Leopold Lippens - told The Associated Press that Knokke-Heist is an exclusive area prized for its many shops, restaurants and art galleries, and that only law-abiding people should bother to come.
Asked whether he worried that banning ordinary people from spending the day might tarnish the image of his town, the mayor said: "We do not want quantity we want quality, and quality is perfect. That means that anybody can come on the condition that they follow the rules of the law."
That view grates with Thierry Dupiereux, information officer with Belgium's League of Families, a social organisation aimed at helping families in need, and which lobbies for policy change.
He says that the beach bans deprive people of "a safety-valve that helps them unwind."
Almost 10,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Belgium — a country of just 11.5 million — and Dupiereux said the travel restrictions are "a social injustice" aimed at a part of society that has been hardest hit by the disease and the job losses that followed; people "who have little money, who can't afford a week's vacation at the beach or holidays abroad."
"Forbidding all the sudden, just like that one day tourists to go to the sea is depriving these families to get their small summer getaway, so this abrupt measure is kind of unfair, there is a social injustice, it is against a social class," Dupiereux explained.
The coast is just a 90-minute train ride from the capital Brussels, and other places where people who seldom have cars could get away from it all and cool off are poorly served by public transport.
Many youths were boarding trains in Brussels Tuesday, but Knokke-Heist station was almost empty.
At first, the national rail service SNCB resisted calls to cut the number of beach-bound trains, but caved in as political pressure mounted and will now provide fewer this coming weekend.
A number of lawmakers urged Interior Minister Pieter De Crem to rein in the SNCB, notably Bjorn Answeeuw, from the populist N-VA party.
Belgium's last government collapsed when the N-VA pulled out.
The party is too big to ignore and has been central in talks to form a new administration over the 14 months since the last election.
During that time, the N-VA has routinely criticised the interim government installed to manage the COVID-19 crisis.
Fears over migration have proved a vote winner for the party.
"I defend those who want to go freely to the coast, it is a right that we all have. Being beach day-trippers does not make us terrorists for a day" De Crem said.
For people like those involved in Saturday's beach riot in Blankenberge, De Crem suggested setting up a register — similar to ones used for soccer hooligans — and banning those on it from going to the coast.
Other parliamentarians expressed concern about the way police have acknowledged stopping people who merely look like the youths involved in the riot.
"It wasn't a night club bouncer who said this, it was a police officer," said Socialist lawmaker Herve Rigot.
At the League of Families, Thierry Dupiereux said it's difficult to work out who to believe these days, when the coronavirus, the lack of a full-time government and even a heat wave weigh on everyone's minds and make for strange times.
"We're in a political situation in Belgium today where a lot is at stake. We don't always know who is acting on behalf of whom. There are lots of political games being played," he said.
In a surprising about-face a few hours after speaking to AP, and after the parliamentary hearing, which might underline the pressures involved, Mayor Lippens announced that day-trippers could return to Knokke-Heist as of Wednesday.