Speech delivered at the Conference 'Working Together on a Secure and Trustworthy Port' Antwerp 17 February 2023
Dear Mayor De Wever of Antwerp,
Thank you for hosting this important event.
Dear Mayor Aboutaleb of Rotterdam,
It is good to meet you again.
Dear Ministers of the Belgian and Dutch governments, Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The port of Antwerp is the most important economic hub in my country. 140.000 jobs, directly and indirectly. 1.000 companies. Total value added, directly and indirectly, amounts to 5% of Belgian GDP. Together with the port of Rotterdam, Antwerp is Europe’s maritime lifeline to the world. We need to cherish this hub. We need to support it. We need to help it develop further. Still, there is a cloud hanging over our ports. Antwerp ànd Rotterdam.
These ports have become the main entry points for the drugs trade in Europe. The cocaine trade. That is disruptive for the port’s operation and its future development. It spills over into our society, causing violence and harm to innocent citizens. In Antwerp, but also in other cities and now even in smaller towns.
And it is killing people. Most recently, an 11-year-old girl, just a few weeks ago. We must address this scourge, for it threatens both our economies and our societies.
Yesterday, my government announced a comprehensive plan to combat drug related crime. That plan embraces the entire portal security chain. It consists of 7 parts.
1. More boots on the ground
In the weeks to come, 100 extra police officers will be deployed in the port of Antwerp, patrolling the waters and the wharfs. They will be part of a beefed-up Antwerp shipping police that will see its capacity triple over the next year. Over this government’s tenure, the judicial police are being strengthened with 400 people. 100 of them in Antwerp.
2. This morning, a national drugs commissioner has been appointed, Ms. Ine Van Wymersch, a federal magistrate. She will coordinate and drive the fight against drug-related crime.
3. The government has approved a law proposal that will strengthen local authorities in confronting criminal outfits. In shutting down businesses that are fronts for organized crime and money laundering. I hope parliament will vote on that law soon.
4. Customs will increase screening of incoming high-risk containers from drug producing countries. We are talking about 400.000 containers a year. We aim to screen all of them. For that purpose, custom services will be reinforced with 100 new agents.
5. The National Security Authority will start screening people working in the harbor. 16.000 people in total.
6. We have concluded extradition treaties with several countries, notably on the Arabian Peninsula. The United Arab Emirates, for instance. That’s where some of the top dogs of the drugs trade are hiding and conducting their business. We will increase our demands on these countries to start extraditing these criminals.
7. We will also address drug users and customers. This is a demand-driven business. If there were no cocaine users in our countries, there would be no cocaine traffic into our ports. That is why we will significantly increase the fines on drug possession and drug use. And we will push users into rehab. With this plan, the government offers a coherent approach to tackle this curse.
But that will not suffice. There are three parties in this joint effort. The government. Local authorities and port authorities. And private companies.
If we want to be successful, the three of us must work together. I know port authorities and private companies are already doing a lot. Fencing off container terminals. Limiting access to those sites. Limiting access to containers, for instance through fingerprints.
I applaud those efforts. But it is not enough. We must step up our efforts. That comes with a cost. And over the coming weeks, I would like to discuss how we can shoulder this common responsibility. Together. After all, we are talking about an economic activity that is vital for jobs and growth, but that comes with considerable collateral damage and reputational risks.
Joint financing of such efforts is not new. And it should not be taboo. Asking private companies to shoulder part of the responsibility for safeguarding the infrastructure they use, is not a novel idea. It is quite common. Brussels Airport Company co-finances the security operations. Engie finances the protection of its nuclear plants. Banks finance the protection of cash transports.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Drugs are being brought into our ports, our cities and our societies. That comes with a huge cost. The only way we can deal with this threat is by working together, by launching common initiatives and by sharing the responsibility. Together with local authorities. Together with port authorities, shipowners, container companies, terminal operators. All of us. Throughout the entire security chain. Together.