Milquet wants soldiers at Ciergnon

- Around 150 police officers guard royal palaces

 

- The minister of home affairs wants to replace some of them with soldiers

 

- But the defense ministry isn’t keen…

Will a military guard be reinstated at royal properties? There is currently no formal ‘agreement’ between the defense and interior ministries, still less any agreement on costs, just leaks from the police unions. The defense minister’s office has reluctantly confirmed that there is just a “preliminary understanding”, while the ministry of home affairs talks of a “dialogue” which is “not a priority”.

 

In fact, the office of Joëlle Milquet, minister of home affairs, is fighting for an agreement that certain palaces and other royal properties, particularly Ciergnon, should from now on be the responsibility of the army and no longer of the police. Over at defense, the minister’s office has not refused to consider this idea. It is actively participating in discussions with colleagues from the interior ministry, though it is not clear what it would gain if the proposed change were put into operation. The advantage would be indirect: “If I do this for you, you’ll owe me a favor.”

 

From the perspective of the interior ministry, however, the proposal, if not worth a fortune – the budgetary impact has not been estimated – would at least allow the federal police to free up dozens of officers to return to real police work. But what exactly is the proposal? The defense version is that it concerns nearly 150 people protecting the Royal Palace of Laeken, the Belvédère, Stuyvenberg, the Royal Palace of Brussels and the Castle of Ciergnon, the Royal Family’s summer residence. The change would thus affect both the official palaces and private residences of King Albert II, Prince Philippe and Queen Fabiola.

 

Sources at the interior ministry do not confirm that their ambition extends that far. They do confirm that they want to allow soldiers to guard the castles of Ciergnon and Fenffe, but not the Belvédère or Laeken palaces. At Ciergnon alone, some thirty police officers could be “retrieved.” It’s obvious that the numbers involved in guarding the palaces must be significant: they work in teams on 24-hour shifts, seven days a week, whether or not the Royal Family is present.

 

It should be noted that protection of individual members of the Royal Family by bodyguards is excluded from the ongoing discussions. The army does not have enough ‘DAS’ security guards to meet the current needs of embassies – it isn’t even thinking about taking on personal protection for the sovereign.

 

The first obstacle to the “remilitarization” of the guard at the royal palaces is the agreement of the royal household itself. On Tuesday, the minister of home affairs met General Van den Put, head of the Maison Militaire du Roi, but they talked only about July 21 (the Belgian National day). However, at Rue de la Loi as much as at Lambermont, they recognize that the Palace isn’t keen.

 

The other obstacle is the powers of the army. A soldier cannot fulfill the functions of a police officer in relation to arrests. If an intruder is trying to climb a perimeter wall, a police officer can arrest him straight away. As for a soldier, he cannot intercept the intruder until after he has climbed over the wall. Only then can he…call the police!

 

The same problem arises in relation to the entry and exit of ministerial vehicles visiting Laeken or Belvédère. Unlike a police officer, a simple soldier can’t just go out into the middle of the road and direct traffic. If the armed forces were to take back the responsibility for guarding the royal palaces, they would have to station military police there, with powers to direct traffic. However, the military police group, which is part of the Belgian army, has in total fewer than 200 men in all its five detachments, across the whole country.

 

In short, if the defense ministry is not saying no, it is saying above all that it is not ready to take on the responsibility. It has recently shown that it can work with the interior ministry, in a joint purchase of handguns for the Army Special Forces Group (SFG) and the police’s Special Units (CGSU). But trading policemen for soldiers, that’s not quite a done deal yet.

 

ALAIN LALLEMAND

 

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