Belgium's transport minister has become the first Cabinet member to quit amid criticism of the government's handling of the security situation. Belgium could now be facing a political crisis, reports Barbara Wesel.
To the very end, the minister cited a "media campaign" that had forced her out of office. She had, however, provided statements contradicting each other to such an extent that her resignation was ultimately inevitable.
Jacqueline Galant has become the first political casualty of the March 22 terror attacks in Brussels. Thus far, the Belgian government had shown itself to be surprisingly resilient. Admittedly, Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens offered their respective resignations back in March after the attacks, but Prime Minister Charles Michel obviously prioritized Cabinet stability over the necessity of drawing conclusions from his ministers' failure.
Report on deficiencies at Zaventem Airport was ignored
The transport minister is facing harsh accusations: Last spring, her ministry received a report from the European Commission which highlighted serious security deficiencies at Brussels Airport. A Commission spokesman explained that such security assessments are carried out annually at airports across the EU and that the results are passed on to the relevant authorities via confidential reports.
The Commission's inspection was conducted in an airport area after the security checks. The aim was to find out whether unauthorized persons could gain access and whether explosives could easily be smuggled on board. The result was devastating - security shortcomings were labeled as "serious."
Of course, ignoring the report was not an immediate cause of the bomb attack, which took place in the publicly accessible departure hall. Galant, however, denied any knowledge of it. Opposition politicians then published a selection of documents which proved the contrary.
Also made public was a document from the ministry that denounced security conditions at the airport as far back as December 2014: Zaventem Airport was wide open, and "well-known jihadists sporting their employee badges are strolling all over the area." No consequences were drawn, and the transport minister even refused to increase the number of security inspectors at the airport, a measure that had been debated.
Failures and glitches galore
Galant's downfall, however, was not brought about only by accusations of professional incompetence. "Le Soir" newspaper called her a minister with a "big mouth and no substance" who had obviously made false statements. Making matters worse, she was also responsible for air traffic controllers who earlier in the week once again caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights in Belgium through unannounced strikes. She was not in control of her portfolio and the tasks related to it: that is the allegation that has been put forward.
Galant, however, was only one of several Cabinet members accused of failure with respect to handling public safety. Immediately after the attacks, details about lapses, some of them shocking, were made public. For instance, weeks prior to March 18 and the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the last surviving Paris attacker, there had already been leads as to his potential hideout.
In addition, early warnings issued by the Turkish secret service regarding Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who blew himself up at Brussels Airport, were engulfed without trace in the impenetrable jungle of Belgian authorities. Furthermore, some are asking why the Brussels Metro resumed normal services on the morning of March 22, even though the National Security Council had raised its terror alert to the highest level prior to the second bomb attack. Metro traffic should actually have been stopped immediately. The list of failures and glitches is long and involves the judiciary, the interior minister and the police as well as the secret service.
Thus far, Michel has been able to fend off all attacks on his government, which is made up of a coalition of Flemish conservatives, right-wingers and liberals. The francophone side is represented only by the prime minister's own Reformist Movement party. The two parts of the country are represented in such unbalanced proportions that the government, upon its formation, was nicknamed "Kamikaze Coalition." The inbuilt instability could now lead to its implosion. The transport minister's forced resignation weakens the feeble construction, as well as the prime minister's authority. The opposition sees its chance; parliamentary discourse has become more aggressive.
Belgium's parliamentary investigation committee is set to continue its research into security shortcomings prior to March 22 next week. "The government will cooperate in every respect, so that there'll be transparency and that the appropriate conclusions can be drawn," pledged Michel.
But he won't be able to change Belgium's key problem: "There are serious inefficiencies within the public institutions," the transport ministry's top civil servant - who resigned prior to the minister herself in an act of protest against his superior - has just declared. And the prime minister does not have the kind of broad-based political support needed to enable him to impose on his country the necessary fundamental structural reforms.