Frenchman convicted to life in Jewish museum attack, tells jury ‘life goes on!’

By Clement Rossignol

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche was sentenced to life in jail on Monday for shooting dead four people in a Jewish museum in 2014, telling the court “life goes on” in his last words to the jury.

The families of victims and survivors of the attacks voiced relief at the end of a two-month-long jury trial dogged by controversy over what they denounced as conspiracy theories put forward by Nemmouche’s defense lawyers.

Nemmouche, 33, who staged the attack after coming back from Syria, spat out just that one short phrase ahead of the jury’s final deliberation on the length of his penalty on Monday.

Nacer Bendrer, another French citizen being tried as Nemmouche’s accomplice told the court, “I am ashamed to be here … I am ashamed to have crossed paths with this guy. He is not a man, he is a monster.”

The 12-person jury convicted Bendrer to 15 years in prison for acting as an accomplice. He was suspected of providing the weapon used in the shooting.

The attack in May 2014 – the first by a Western European who fought with Islamist militant factions in Syria’s civil war – highlights the threat posed by jihadist returning home.

The shooting killed an Israeli tourist couple, Myriam and Emmanuel Riva, and two employees of the museum, Dominique Sabrier and Alexandre Strens.

In final words, the prosecutor Yves Moreau called on the jury to hand down a tough sentence: “He will get out of jail and he’ll go on another crusade and start killing again,” he was cited by the state broadcaster RTBF as saying on Monday.

Turning to Nemmouche, who was largely impassive and refused to speak during the trial, he took aim at his lack of contrition. “The cherry on the cake: you aren’t even capable of taking responsibility for your acts,” he said.

Nemmouche, 33 – who was radicalized in the jail, according to investigators – is also facing charges in France over his role in holding hostage journalists in Syria.

During the high-profile trial, the two French journalists had testified that they remembered Nemmouche as a deeply anti-Semitic, sadistic and full of hatred.

Defense lawyers, who had alleged that prosecutors doctored video footage of the attack and that Nemmouche was framed in a settling of accounts between spies including Mossad agents, said he would not appeal the sentence.

(Reporting by Clement Rossingnol; Additional by Clare Roth; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Jan Strupczewski)

Belgian judge orders repatriation of six children of Islamic State militants

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish-led militiamen ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory over Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

By Charlotte Steenackers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A Belgian judge has ordered the government to repatriate six children of Islamic State (IS) militants and their mothers who have been detained in a camp in Kurdish-controlled Syria, the national news agency Belga said on Wednesday.

Tatiana Wielandt, 26, and Bouchra Abouallal, 25, both Belgian citizens, and their children have been held in the Al-Hol camp in since the defeat of IS in nearly all territory it once held in Syria and Iraq.

Belga quoted the court ruling as ordering the Brussels government to take all necessary and possible measures to ensure the six children and their mothers can return to Belgium.

It must do so within 40 days after being notified of the decision or pay a daily penalty of 5,000 euros for each child, up to a maximum 1 million euros, newspaper De Tijd said. The Belgian government can appeal the ruling.

No comment was available from the court on Wednesday due to a public holiday. A lawyer for the two women was not immediately available for comment.

A spokesman for the foreign ministry said it would “analyze the situation together” with the justice and interior ministries.

Hundreds of European citizens, many of them babies, are being kept by U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in three camps since IS was ousted last year from almost all the large swathes of territory it seized in 2014-15, according to Kurdish sources.

European nations have been reluctant to take them back, regarding children of jihadists both as victims and threats – difficult to reintegrate into schools and homes.

European diplomats say they cannot act in a region where Kurdish control is not internationally recognized. Moreover, there is little popular sympathy for militants’ families after a spate of deadly IS attacks across western Europe.

The Kurd say it is not their job to prosecute or hold them indefinitely, leaving the women and children in legal limbo.

However, mounting concern over the apparent abandonment of hundreds of children with a claim to EU citizenship – most of them under six – is pushing governments to quietly explore how to tackle the complexities of bringing them back.

(Reporting by Charlotte Steenackers; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests spread, Brussels police arrest hundreds in riot

Riot police are seen during the "yellow vests" protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian police detained more than 400 people on Saturday after “yellow vest” protesters inspired by riots in France threw rocks and firecrackers and damaged shops and cars as they tried to reach official buildings in Brussels.

destroyed car is seen after the "yellow vests" protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

A destroyed car is seen after the “yellow vests” protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

n the second violence of its kind in the capital in eight days, a crowd which police estimated at around 1,000 faced riot squads who used water cannon and tear gas to keep people away from the European Union headquarters and the nearby Belgian government quarter. Calm was restored after about five hours.

The movement in Belgium, inspired by the “gilets jaunes”, or yellow vest, protests in neighboring France over the past month, has given voice to complaints about the cost of living and demanded the removal of Belgium’s center-right coalition government, six months before a national election is due in May.

French police said more than 30,000 people demonstrated there and more than 30 people were injured in a second successive Saturday of violence in Paris.

Demonstrators clash with police during the "yellow vests" protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Demonstrators clash with police during the “yellow vests” protest against higher fuel prices, in Brussels, Belgium, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian protesters wearing the fluorescent yellow vests carried by all motorists for emergencies also briefly blocked a motorway near Belgium’s border with France.

(Reporting by Clement Rossignol and Robin Emmott; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Europeans to take new steps against Russia over UK spy

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite, Slovenia's Prime Minister Miro Cerar and Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2018. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Pool via Reuters

By Noah Barkin and Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union member states agreed at a summit in Brussels to take further punitive steps against Russia in the coming days for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, as Moscow accused the bloc of joining a London-driven hate campaign against it.

Late on Thursday, in a boost for British Prime Minister Theresa May, the 28-member EU collectively condemned the attack on a former Russian spy and said it was “highly likely” Moscow was responsible. They also recalled the EU ambassador to Russia.

“Additional steps are expected as early as Monday at the national level,” summit chair Donald Tusk told reporters.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris and Berlin would be among countries taking further rapid and coordinated measures which other leaders said would include the expulsion of Russian officials and possible other retaliatory actions.

“We consider this attack a serious challenge to our security and European sovereignty so it calls for a coordinated and determined response from the European Union and its member states,” Macron told a news conference.

Standing beside him, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU countries would debate what measures to take “and then act”.

One senior official familiar with discussions said the extent of measures in the coming weeks could be “surprising” and not confined to expulsions. There is no talk of more economic sanctions, whose enforcement has divided the EU in the past.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he was likely to announce the expulsion of several people on Monday, after returning to Prague and consulting with his foreign minister.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she was ready to expel Russian spies, whose activities she said were deeply harmful: “It is certain that a coordinated action will be taken next week, maybe at the start of it,” she said. “It’s absolutely obvious that the network exists and that it acts aggressively.”

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis stressed that national governments wanted to retain control of the details in an area where they guard their sovereignty from Brussels. But most of those present would go home and prepare suitable steps.

Russia has denied responsibility for the March 4 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two. A British judge said on Thursday that both victims may have suffered brain damage from the attack.

BRITISH EXPELLED

Moscow retaliated against May’s move to expel 23 Russians by announcing the expulsion of the same number of Britons.

On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry described the EU accusation as “baseless” and accused the bloc of spurning cooperation with Moscow and joining “another anti-Russian campaign deployed by London and its allies overseas with an obvious goal: to put another obstacle on the path to the normalization of the situation on the European continent”.

In Moscow, the expulsion of British diplomats went ahead, a convoy of minibuses speeding out of the embassy compound to applause after British embassy staff said their goodbyes in the courtyard under a light snowfall.

A special charter flight is expected to fly the diplomats back to Britain later on Friday.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, on a visit to Kiev, signaled that Paris was considering expelling Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain. “You will see,” he said.

The summit statement hardened previous EU language on Russia’s alleged role as French President Emmanuel Macron and others helped May overcome hesitation on the part of some of Moscow’s friendlier states, some of whom questioned how definitive Britain’s evidence is.

“What we will now consider in the coming days is whether we want to take individual action relating to Russian diplomats in Ireland,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters.

“We’re not going to expel people randomly.”

Welcoming the solidarity she secured from the summit, May told reporters on leaving: “The threat from Russia is one that respects no borders and I think it is clear that Russia is challenging the values we share as Europeans and it is right that we stand together in defense of those values.”

Still, some said they could ill afford Russian retaliation against their own Moscow embassies, some of which employ barely a handful of accredited diplomats.

Austria said it did not plan to expel Russians.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Dmitry Madorsky in Moscow and Richard Lough, Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott and Elizabeth Piper in Brussels; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald)

Belgium launches twin investigations into knife attack

People walk next to the scene where a man attacked two soldiers with a knife in Brussels, Belgium August 25, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken August 25, 2017. Thomas Da Silva Rosa /via REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian authorities on Saturday launched twin investigations into a knife attack they consider to be an act of terrorism and released more details of the suspect shot dead by soldiers in central Brussels.

Federal prosecutors said that they had requested an investigating judge look into the incident on Friday that they said constituted attempted murder.

A second investigation would look at the soldiers’ response.

The man shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as he stabbed the soldiers, one of whom shot him twice.

The assailant died shortly afterwards in hospital. Investigators then found a fake firearm and two copies of the Koran among his possessions.

They said the man, aged 30 and of Somali origin, had come to Belgium in 2004. Migration Minister Theo Francken said the man had been granted asylum in 2009 and gained Belgian citizenship in 2015.

Investigators also searched the man’s home in the northern city of Bruges, prosecutors said, without giving any details of what they had found.

They added the man was not known to have any links to Islamist militancy, but had committed an act of assault and battery in February this year.

Brussels prosecutors said they had started an investigation into whether the soldier who killed the man had acted correctly.

“It appears that the soldier twice shot the suspect who had attacked them with a knife. These shots were fired in the context of self-defense and according to the rules of engagement,” the prosecution service said in a statement.

It added that an autopsy would be carried out on Saturday. Prosecutors would take a final decision based on this and a report by a ballistics expert.

Soldiers routinely patrol the streets of the Belgian capital due to a heightened security alert level after Islamist shooting and bomb attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016.

In June, troops shot dead a suspected suicide bomber at Brussels’ central train station. There were no other casualties. Authorities treated the incident as an attempted terrorist attack.

 

 

(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

 

‘No whistling, just ticking’: EU pushes on Brexit talks

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier addresses a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The EU’s negotiator pressed Britain on Wednesday to offer more post-Brexit rights to European expats and accept it will pay a hefty sum on leaving if it wants a quick start to talks on a future trading relationship.

Michel Barnier, who holds a first full round of talks next week, betrayed impatience with London during a Brussels news conference. Britain had yet to respond to detailed proposals from him on many issues, he said, and had fallen short on what it has offered on citizens’ rights, as well as on what it owes.

Asked his view on Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s remark on Tuesday that Brussels could “go whistle” if it thought Britain would pay what Johnson called “extortionate” demands, Barnier showed no desire to join in any cross-Channel banter:

“I’m not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking,” the Frenchman said, echoing his refrain of the past year that time is tight to conclude terms for an exit in March 2019 that can limit disruption for businesses and millions of people.

Barnier said he wants detailed proposals from the British next week to match those made by the EU on issues they want settled in a withdrawal treaty.

These include the rights of expats left on either side of a new EU-UK border, a methodology for calculating how much Britain will owe to cover commitments to the EU and how to manage the new border, notably on Ireland.

Only if there is progress on all three of these would EU leaders agree to open negotiations on a future free trade deal.

For now, however, 3 million Europeans in Britain would have fewer rights under London’s proposal than Britons on the continent, notably in the matter of being able to bring in relatives, he said. And those rights in Britain would not be guaranteed by the treaty or ultimately by the EU’s judges in Luxembourg.

NEGOTIATING POSITIONS

Even some EU governments concede that the demand for much of the relations between Britain and the bloc to be under ultimate scrutiny by the European Court of Justice – anathema to many of those who voted for Brexit a year ago – is a “maximalist” position and may have to be moderated in negotiations.

An early indication of how far apart the two sides really are will come from Monday, when British officials are due in Brussels for the first of four, week-long, monthly rounds of negotiations which they hope can show enough progress to see EU leaders agree at a summit in mid-October to open trade talks.

Barnier urged London to be clear on its willingness to pay a bill, which the EU executive have put at potentially 60 billion euros ($70 billion), if it wants to win the Union’s trust.

He dismissed suggestions from Brexit supporters that the EU was holding Britain to “ransom” and stressed that he was open to negotiating the amount “line by line” but first the British had clearly to take responsibility for their share of EU budgets.

“I cannot imagine that a very great country like the United Kingdom is not a country that takes responsibility,” he said.

In a sign of the domestic dramas that have delayed Britain’s response, three leaders will separately see Barnier on Thursday: the first ministers of Wales, which backed Brexit, and Scotland, which did not, as well as opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.

With May hobbled by losses in a miscued snap election last month, Corbyn’s Labour party and the devolved governments are pushing her to modify her Brexit plans – though Barnier stressed he would only be negotiating with British ministers.

(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Abortive Brussels attack could have been much worse: PM

Belgian soldiers patrol inside Brussels central railway station after a suicide bomber was shot dead by troops in Brussels, Belgium, June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Philip Blenkinsop and Charlotte Steenackers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A suitcase bomb packed with nails and gas bottles could have caused heavy casualties, Belgium’s prime minister said on Wednesday, a day after a soldier shot dead a Moroccan national attempting an attack on Brussels’ central station.

“We have avoided an attack that could have been a great deal worse,” Charles Michel told reporters after a national security council meeting following Tuesday evening’s incident, in which no one else was hurt.

However, no further threat was seen as imminent and the public alert level was left unchanged.

A counter-terrorism prosecutor named the dead man only by his initials, O.Z. He was a 36-year-old Moroccan citizen who lived in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek and had not been suspected of militant links. He set off his bomb on a crowded station concourse below ground at 8:44 p.m. (2.44 p.m. ET).

Walking up to a group of passengers, prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said, “he grabbed his suitcase, while shouting and causing a partial explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.”

The suitcase, later found to contain nails and gas bottles, caught fire and then exploded a second time more violently as the man ran downstairs to the platforms.

He then ran back up to the concourse where commuters had been milling around and rushed toward a soldier shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is greater, in Arabic. The soldier, part of a routine patrol, shot him several times. Bomb disposal experts checked the body and found he was not carrying more explosives.

Police raided the man’s home overnight, Van Der Sypt said.

Molenbeek, an impoverished borough with a big Moroccan Muslim population just across Brussels’ industrial canal from its historic center, gained notoriety after an Islamic State cell based there mounted suicide attacks on Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people. Associates of that group attacked Brussels itself four months later, killing 32 people.

Belgian policemen get out of a house after searching it, following yesterday's attack, in Brussels, Belgium June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Belgian policemen get out of a house after searching it, following yesterday’s attack, in Brussels, Belgium June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

“WE WILL NOT BE INTIMIDATED”

Prime Minister Michel insisted the country, which has been the most fertile European recruiting ground for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, would not bow to threats that have seen combat troops become a permanent fixture at public spaces in Brussels.

“We will not let ourselves be intimidated,” Michel said. “We will go on living our lives as normal.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and no word on how investigations are progressing into whether the man had acted alone or had help, and into any links to radical groups.

The Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, took a heavy hit to its tourist industry last year. Visitors and residents out enjoying a hot summer’s evening on the ornate Renaissance town square, the Grand Place, close to Central Station were cleared quickly away by police.

Smoke billowed through the elegant 1930s marble hallways of the station, sending people fleeing to the surface, well aware of last year’s attacks at Brussels airport and on the metro, as well as of a string of Islamic State-inspired assaults in France, Germany, Sweden and Britain.

“Such isolated acts will continue in Brussels, in Paris and elsewhere. It’s inevitable,” Brussels security consultant Claude Moniquet, a former French agent, told broadcaster RTL.

With Islamic State under pressure in Syria, he said, attacks in Europe may increase, though many would be by “amateurs”.

Witness Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a rail worker, told Reuters: “He was talking about the jihadists and all that and then at some point he shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew up the little suitcase he had next to him. People just took off.”

Remy Bonnaffe, a 23-year-old lawyer who was waiting for a train home, photographed the flaming suitcase before the second blast, followed by gunfire, prompted him to run.

“I think we had some luck tonight,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Clement Rossignol, Francesco Guarascio, Jan Strupczewski, Elizabeth Miles and Alastair Macdonald; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Good atmosphere but nothing new in EU talks with Erdogan, sources say

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at an Imam Hatip religious school association in Istanbul, Turkey, May 26, 2017.

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Talks last week between the heads of European Union institutions and Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, were held in a “good atmosphere” but produced no new agreements, officials in Brussels said, playing down comments by the Turkish leader.

Tensions between Turkey and the EU run high over rights and security issues, but the bloc depends on the help of NATO ally Ankara on migration and the conflict in Syria.

After meeting European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week in Brussels, Erdogan was quoted as saying he had been presented with a new 12-month timetable for renewing ties.

But senior EU officials voiced caution and some scepticism, saying no formal deadlines were set. The EU has a list of mid- and high-level meetings it hopes to hold with Turkey this year, they said, but any improvement in bilateral ties would depend on Erdogan’s resolving at least some of many points of contention.

They include the EU’s worry that Turkey’s anti-terror laws are too broad and used to persecute Erdogan critics, as demonstrated in Ankara’s sweeping security crackdown following a botched coup almost a year ago.

Other concerns relate to the treatment of the Kurds, the media and academics, as well as Erdogan moving to assume even more powers following an April referendum.

The pre-referendum campaign produced new spats with EU members Germany and the Netherlands, whose authorities Erdogan likened to Nazis when they had prevented Turkish politicians from campaigning in their countries.

Despite the often harsh rhetoric, senior EU officials said the atmosphere of the meeting was “good” and “constructive”.

“It was definitely not hostile, but both sides pretty much restated their well-known positions,” one of the sources said.

Turkey complains about slow progress in its stalled EU accession talks, discussions on visa-free travel for Turks to the EU and disbursement of EU funds to Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

The bloc says Erdogan must first address concerns over human rights and rule of law, and should work with the Council of Europe – a European rights watchdog of which Turkey is a member – on that..

The EU says progress in talks over reuniting the ethnically split Cyprus is also key to unlocking other area, including ideas to beef up an existing customs union between Turkey and the EU.

Erdogan has suggested Turkey could hold a referendum on continuing EU accession talks, and possibly another on reinstating the death penalty. Restoring capital punishment would end Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

EU leaders will discuss their ties and especially their cooperation with Turkey on migration when in Brussels on June 22-23. Calls from the European Parliament to formally halt Turkey’s accession talks have so far not reached critical mass.

“We have no choice,” one of the sources said when asked if the EU was looking to working more with Turkey after the top-level talks with Erdogan.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Larry King)

EU tries to contain East-West schism as Brexit bites

European and national flags fly outside the European Parliament while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presents a white paper on options for shoring up unity once Britain launches its withdrawal process, in Brussels, Belgium, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – As Britain hands the European Union its formal notice to quit this month, Brussels is resigned to losing part of the EU’s western flank but is increasingly stressed that upset in the east is pulling the survivors further apart.

Poland, the biggest of the ex-communist eastern states to join after the Cold War, has picked a fight over the fairly minor matter of who chairs EU summits. Symptomatic of a mounting east-west friction, the spat will overshadow a meeting this week that was meant to forge post-Brexit unity.

Brexit has not created that friction but made it worse, as leaders struggle to quell popular disaffection with the EU that is by no means confined to Britain. Westerners are talking up faster integration, even if that means leaving nationalistic easterners behind in a “multispeed Europe”.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel, raised in East Germany and a key defender of eastern allies, joined her French, Italian and Spanish peers at Versailles on Monday to ram home a message that unless some states press ahead the EU will stall and break, Polish ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski hit right back.

“The decisions made in … Versailles … aim to reinforce the process of European Union disintegration which has started with Brexit,” he said on Tuesday.

Kaczynski will not be in Brussels for Thursday’s summit but his prime minister, Beata Szydlo, will give voice to his refusal to endorse the reappointment of her centrist predecessor Donald Tusk as European Council president. Tusk and the right-wing Kaczynski are old and bitter rivals in Polish politics.

BREXIT HOLE

Brexit deprives the easterners, unwilling to see diktat from Brussels or Berlin replace rule from Moscow, of their strongest ally against EU centralization and euro zone domination.

It also leaves a big hole in the EU budget for paying the subsidies that fund a large slice of public spending in the east — cash that has kept voters there sold on EU membership and which Brussels fears London may now use to court eastern favor and divide the EU to extract better Brexit terms.

On Friday, leaders will work on plans for a March 25 summit in Rome where they hope to use 60th anniversary celebrations of the bloc’s founding treaty to pledge a new unity after Brexit.

Yet the road to Rome has been marked with division over the push by founding powers and the EU executive led by Jean-Claude Juncker for more differentiated EU integration.

“The key message of Rome must be the unity of the 27,” said a senior EU official involved in looking for compromises to ease the friction. “The political context of Brexit should not be a multispeed Europe. That would be completely out of tune.”

Neither side is pushing for a split and all insist they must pull together against challenges from Russia and uncertainty about U.S. support under President Donald Trump. For that reason, officials say, the words to come out of the Brussels and Rome summits will stress unity and soft-pedal the differences.

FRICTION GROWING

But east-west friction has heated up in the past two years.

There are rows over eastern reluctance to take in Syrian refugees and Kaczynski’s new policies that Brussels calls undemocratic. New border controls to curb migrants inside the passport-free Schengen zone have fueled eastern fears of losing travel freedoms cherished since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And there is a brewing crisis over what eastern leaders see as hypocritical protectionism inside the EU single market by western governments trying to impose their own national minimum wages on enterprising — and cheap — eastern “posted workers”, who offer services like trucking and construction in the west.

Last week Poland and its allies demanded Brussels crack down on the “double standards” of firms that offer lower quality versions of western food brands in eastern markets.

It is not just outspoken Poland and Hungary who fret at fragmentation. The worry runs from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Eastern diplomats fear a new gap could open up along the old Iron Curtain that may never close, especially if the rich states play up to voters and refuse to fill the EU’s Brexit budget gap.

Prime Minister Robert Fico told Slovakia’s parliament on Wednesday he was skeptical of the Union’s future once Britain leaves in 2019.

“I’m afraid the EU will be divided by the money issue after 2020…In the spirit of Trump’s ‘America first’, we can expect to hear ‘Germany first’, ‘France first’ etc.”

Noting that current EU arrangements already allow for states to deepen their cooperation — the euro is just one of many examples — a senior diplomat from an eastern member state said he was suspicious of assurances from Merkel and others that any new moves would always be open to any member state to join.

“The only new thing they can mean is that this has changed,” he said. “They are saying ‘No, you are not welcome any more’.

“This is very dangerous.”

(Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly and Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw and Tatiana Jancarikova in Bratislava; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Refugees languish in Greek limbo as alarm grows in Brussels

Anis, 4, from Syria (C) is bathed by his mother, as others wash their clothes and shoes, at the Souda municipality-run camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Chios, Greece

By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) – Seven months after the European Union and Turkey struck an agreement to turn back the tide of Syrians fleeing west, no refugees have been sent back from Greece, and Brussels is losing its patience as overcrowded camps grow violent.

The agreement reached in March was designed to reduce the number of migrants crossing into Europe from Turkey, after more than a million people arrived in Europe last year, most reaching Greek islands by boat and continuing by land to Germany.

Under the deal, the European Union declared Turkey “a safe third country”, meaning those who make the crossing can be returned there, even if found to have fled Syria or other countries as refugees deserving protection. Turkey agreed to take them back, in return for a range of EU concessions.

At around the same time, Balkan countries along the land route north closed their borders, so that migrants who once poured across Greece to reach other parts of Europe are now trapped there and prevented from pressing on.

For the most part, the goal of stemming the tide has been achieved so far. Only 17,000 people, around half of them Syrians, have made the hazardous sea crossing from Turkey since the deal was signed, a tiny fraction of hundreds of thousands that arrived the previous year to pass through Greece.

But for the deal to continue to work for the longer term, European officials and experts say refugees will have to be sent back to Turkey. As long as those crossing are still able to stay in Greece, there is a risk that more will decide to come.

“There’s the deterrence effect. If it’s proven that people are being turned back, it can force people to think twice about even trying,” said James Ker-Lindsay, an expert on southern Europe at the London School of Economics.

Only about 700 people who arrived since the deal was signed – just four percent of the total – have gone back to Turkey, and none was ordered back after being recognized as a refugee.

Of those who returned, most were economic migrants from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh who left without seeking asylum in Greece. Around 70 people who did claim asylum in Greece gave up on the process and asked to leave before it was over. The rest are still in Greece, prey for smugglers who offer to take them to northern Europe.

Some 61,000 migrants are still scattered across Greece, including 15,900 in overcrowded island camps that have grown violent as the delays mount, with around 2,500 more arriving each month. The camps are now holding three times as many people as they held when the deal was signed, and twice as many as they were built for.

The EU blames the delays on Greek inefficiency.

“The goal of ensuring returns … has mostly been hampered by the slow pace of processing of asylum applications at first instance by the Greek Asylum Service and of processing of appeals by the newly-established Greek Appeals Authority,” the EU Commission said in a progress report.

“Further efforts are urgently needed by the Greek administration to build a substantially increased and sustained capacity to return arriving migrants, which is considered to be the key deterrent factor for irregular migrants and smugglers.”

Athens says it is simply overwhelmed and cannot speed up the painstaking process of evaluating claims. It has asked the EU to send more staff, but European officials say that would not help without more effort from Greece to improve its system.

Interviews with asylum-seekers and officials involved in the process suggest Greek staff are indeed stretched, but red tape, inefficiency, the lack of a unified plan across refugee camps and a lengthy appeals process are also to blame.

Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece

Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

UNLUCKY

Amir, Walaa and their two young children fled from the Syrian city of Homs to Turkey and reached a beach on the Greek island of Chios in March. They say they came ashore the day before the deal with Turkey, but their arrival was not recorded by police until the next day, exposing them to the new rules.

“We were unlucky,” Walaa said, smiling weakly. Her two brothers had taken just two weeks to reach Germany from Greece before the land border was shut. Her husband Amir added: “We were in the boat and (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel and Turkey were finishing the deal.”

Their asylum case should be easier to process than many: they have their passports and do not need to prove their identity. But they are still months from an answer.

In their first weeks in Greece they were given a number: 10,624. Each day, they rose from their tent in the dusty remains of a castle moat, and walked to a notice board, looking anxiously for it.

If posted, it meant they should walk or catch a bus to the island’s main camp, a few miles (km) away, and queue there at the processing center, a few prefabricated containers arranged inside an abandoned aluminum factory.

They spent four months in the tent before their number finally was posted the first time, summoning them to a meeting to establish their identity, where authorities finally sat them down to ask for their names and fingerprints.

Six months after they arrived, they were finally told the date of their first actual interview: Dec. 6. They were finally given the right to leave the camp and relocate to Athens while they wait for their case to be heard. Now they live at a grimy, abandoned Athens school where smugglers roam, offering passage to northern Europe for $1,000.

“We wait. Every day we just wait. Why, I don’t know,” Walaa said, gazing at the floor. She and her husband asked that their surnames not be published to protect relatives back in Syria.

Humanitarian groups on the ground say poor coordination slows things down on the islands, a conclusion backed up by the EU Commission report, which urged Greece to develop unified management for the camps.

The camps are typically run by local municipalities or the central government, while screening and interviews are carried out primarily by officials from EU border agency Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).

Asylum-seekers say they receive contradictory information and are confounded by a lack of interpreters. One camp used a loud-hailer to call people to appointments; if they didn’t hear it, they missed their turn.

Frontex and EASO officials go to unusual lengths to confirm an identity or check an asylum seeker’s story. Someone who has no documentation and professes to be from Syria, for example, will be asked to name streets, identify landmarks or pick out Syrian coins from a handful of different currencies.

A CRUEL BUREAUCRACY

The long waits and squalor of some camps have turned frustration into violence. On Chios and the island of Lesbos in recent days, asylum-seekers attacked EASO’s offices to protest against delays. Interviews there have yet to resume.

EASO has deployed 202 staff in Greece and has called for 100 more, but EU member states have yet to respond, EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri said. Greece has repeatedly asked for more.

The Greek legal system allows for an elaborate appeals process, which the EU says is too slow. Greece responded in June by sending more judges to replace civil servants and staff of either the U.N. refugee agency or Greek human rights commission, who had previously sat on appeals panels.

The new boards appear to be moving only slightly faster: they made 35 decisions in their first month, compared with 72 made by the old boards in the first three months of the deal, the EU Commission report said. The report did not specify what decisions had been reached.

The most contentious part of the process is determining whether those with valid asylum cases can safely be returned to Turkey, the heart of the March deal. The new appeals boards have dealt with at least three such cases as of Sept. 18, and at least one is challenging the decision at Greece’s highest court, according to the EU report.

Reuters could not find a board member willing to comment publicly on the process.

“A wrong decision might send someone back to serious harm,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, an Amnesty International researcher and former Greece director. “It’s about quality not quantity.”

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; editing by Peter Graff)