Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel; Imagine a World. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 6, 2016 - 14:00:00   ET




CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight: from Brussels, in his first major interview since the terror attacks, the prime minister hits

back at what he calls "Belgium bashing."

But he admits that more catastrophic failure can only be prevented by a serious security reset.


CHARLES MICHEL, BELGIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): I don't accept the idea that a state such as Belgium would be a failed state. We

are a country that's met successes in the fight against terrorism. But there is a failure, just like 9/11 was a failure for the United States.



AMANPOUR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. From Place de la Bourse, where Belgians have come to mourn the victims and place

floral tributes since the terror attacks two weeks ago. And I have just sat down for an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister Charles Michel

as Belgium faces withering criticism for failing to connect the numerous dots and bungling its policing.

The Americans and the British have called for a fundamental European security reset, as they did after 9/11 and 7/7. And Prime Minister Michel

agrees. He is calling for a European CIA.

In a moment, my interview.

But first, the tragedy that struck this city March 22nd.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): These were the desperate scenes as death and destruction came to the heart of Europe, the screams of the wounded, debris


Two weeks ago, this city was targeted in Belgium's worst terror attack ever. And there are still more questions than answers.

With Europe on high alert after the Paris attacks and Belgium having just arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of those ringleaders, just four days earlier,

how could two suicide bombers detonate themselves at the Brussels airport while travelers were waiting to check in?

A third man, the now infamous terrorist in the white jacket, is still on the run. He fled when his bomb failed to detonate.

That same day, just an hour later, another suicide bomber targeted the city metro.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The lights went out. The power went out. Everyone dropped to the ground. They were screaming.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And the two incidents are linked, according to the investigators, by the Bakraoui brothers. One blew himself up on the metro,

the other at the airport. They killed 32 people and wounded 300 more.

Tens of thousands of people are gathered to mourn at the Place de la Bourse. And ever since, sweeping police raids have become a daily

occurrence across the country, as investigators search for at least eight suspects they say were involved.


AMANPOUR: And joining me now from his official residence is the prime minister.

Prime Minister Michel, welcome to the program.

MICHEL (through translator): Thank you for the invitation.

AMANPOUR: Cast your mind back to those terrible days, that terrible moment two weeks ago. It hit a nation. It hit the world.

How did it affect you personally?

MICHEL (through translator): It was the first time that Belgium was faced with such a bloody attack, such a violent attack. As prime minister, I was

informed immediately of the situation.

I was at the emergency center right away. Very early on we understood that it was a very dire situation in the early hours. We feared that there

would be other attacks that would be carried out in Belgium.

And then immediately I met with the first victims, the police, with the emergency response teams that were there. It was really a shocking,

painful situation, just like for every other terrorist attack that happened in the world.

AMANPOUR: One of your own people who worked for you, for your government, for your office, was caught up in this.

MICHEL (through translator): He had the right reflex. Straightaway, he lay down on the floor. He is trained as military. And so he was able to

break the window of the metro to exit the train from that window.

It was a huge shock for him personally. But he obviously realized that others were not as fortunate, because there were many casualties; many

people died and severely injured.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you a few questions to update the investigative process --


AMANPOUR: -- and to know what more you know about who and what and how many committed these terrible attacks. The famous third airport bomber in

the white jacket.

Any new leads on him?

Do you have any idea who he is, where he is?

MICHEL (through translator): In Belgium, the situation is very clear. You've got the government, the prime minister, who doesn't intervene and

can't comment on investigations. It is the state prosecutor who can do it.

Like in the United States, President Obama is not in charge of the investigation. Here we've got a prosecutor which comments on the


A few hours following the attack, our investigators made progress quite quickly. They were able to identify and address -- the address from which

terrorists left very quickly.

We were able to identify equipment that was used. And right now our investigators are working day in, day out, to continue working on this

investigation and to be sure that we will be able to dismantle terrorist networks responsible for these attacks while in Paris but also in Brussels.

AMANPOUR: So you don't know who this man is?

MICHEL (through translator): I'm not going to answer this question, because, in Belgium, the state prosecutor is the one who can comment on

ongoing investigations. That would be a mistake for myself if I were to comment on it.

AMANPOUR: Can you tell me why your authorities were able to so quickly do what you just described right after the attacks and find this sensitive

location when they didn't do it before?

I mean, how could they have done it so quickly after the attack?

They suddenly got all that new information?

Or they had it before and they just didn't act on it?

MICHEL (through translator): I'm going to be very clear. In this fight against terrorists, against these enemies who are hiding, who are more and

more professional in their way -- in the way they communicate, everywhere in the world, including in Belgium, there are successes and there are


We have met successes. In Fairview (ph), for example, when we were able to thwart a terrorist attack, we neutralized terrorists. And the whole world

at the time congratulated Belgium for its good results.

In the early 2000s we arrested to try to see who was about to perpetrate a terrorist attack in the United States or from France. So there are

successes, massive successes. For example, last year more than 100 people were sentenced for terrorism in Belgium.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that you should be congratulated after what happened on the 16th of March?

MICHEL (through translator): Well, following the terrorist attack in London, in Paris, in New York, there was a failure there, because there was

a terrorist attack. In Belgium or elsewhere, there is no zero risk scenario. In the United States, for example, there was a before and an

after 9/11. In Belgium, there will be a before and an after March 22nd.

AMANPOUR: The president of Turkey has said publicly and said to me exactly a week ago that they alerted you to the fact that one of the Bakraouis was

being radicalized. They got him because he was -- of his visits to Syria and they alerted you.


RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRESIDENT OF TURKEY (through translator): The Netherlands nor the Belgians seem to have understood what jihadist stands


We have been calling the nations for a common stance against terrorism and many of the European member states seem to have failed to attach the

significance that this call for action deserves.


AMANPOUR: What is your response to that specific warning from the president of Turkey?

MICHEL (through translator): On two points: first point, it is very surprising from a country such as Turkey and its president to see that, if

that person was dangerous, to leave that person board a plane going to the Netherlands without Turkish officers and without early information given on

the fact that that person was about to arrive there and at that, first point.

Second point that I want to indicate, in Belgium, obviously, there will also be a parliamentary investigation commission and the parliament will be

able to check how communication was managed with Belgium and various countries, including Turkey, which really shows that the main priority for

our generation in all democratic societies is to make sure that we improve communication intelligence sharing.

I was one of the first European leaders a few months ago already before terrorist attack in Belgium to ask for the setting up of a European CIA or

FBI, to have a European platform that would be better structured, better organized in order to continuously share information.

In Europe, there is freedom of movement within the Schengen area. Borders are open, which means two things in my opinion. We need strict --


MICHEL (through translator): -- and tight control on external European borders. This is a challenge for European leaders today. This is an

urgent thing we need to do. And we need to improve data, information, intelligence sharing regarding people at risk.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe -- because you have called for a European CIA. And you have said that, perhaps with immediate sharing of information, an

attack like that might never happen again if you beef up and reform the intelligence and the security situation here.

Do you believe that Europe is ready for that, open for that?

Will you get that?

MICHEL (through translator): No, some people are reluctant because intelligence services are used to sharing information bilaterally with

services that they trust. A multilateral information sharing is more difficult. But I have seen so far that progress has been made.

AMANPOUR: You know, you spoke a lot about the U.S. post 9/11 and also Britain post 7/7. These countries really reset their intel and security

operations after those terrorist attacks.

The question is, will you do that?

You have said you will and you want do that.

But how do you address these fundamental structural issues, which the U.K. and the U.S. anyway have publically identified?

You know, failure to connect dots, bureaucratic turf wars, not to mention in Brussels itself, multiple -- more than a dozen different police forces;

the fact that your country is different languages -- federal, local, all these different multi-headed operations, which clearly let the ball drop

through their fingers.

How do you address that?

It's huge.

MICHEL (through translator): A few days ago, in Brussels, I met with John Kerry. And John Kerry was -- it was amazing.

He said, we know that your government for months has taken important measures and, unfortunately, these terrorist attacks have occurred now,

when the government is taking initiatives. That's the first point.

Second point, of course, in Belgium, there are institutional realities -- several national languages, administrative realities. But it is the case

in most democratic countries in the world where you have got local authorities, the federal, state, central state, et cetera.

AMANPOUR: But many people say that yours is much more complex than most other places. It's not like this in Britain. And the U.S. had to break

down walls after 9/11 between various different security operations.

I mean, you will agree that you have many more walls and centers of power than many more European countries?

MICHEL (through translator): Some people started thinking about how to reform services in order for them to be more efficient, simpler. We will

have to do the same in Belgium. We will have to see how we can strengthen, bolster cooperation, have a better security service cooperation.

But what I'm saying is that our situation will not be an obstacle because everybody in Belgium wants to improve action capacity regarding security.

AMANPOUR: So will that, for instance, change the situation that apparently happened with the Turkish warning, that it went to the consulate and the

official there did not run it up the ladder, did not flag the authorities for several months?

And he hasn't been disciplined.

Might he have prevented a major attack if he had at least passed on -- this is a Belgian official -- the warning from Turkey to your government?

MICHEL (through translator): Well, let me be clear. I think we need to see what the responsibility was, the role of different services. We also

need to see how we can improve communication.

And I made a commitment before the Belgian people and for all the victims, Belgian or international, the parliament in the next month will be able to

interrogate ministers, heads of services, civil servants which are in charge of this, so that everybody can make their own opinion.

But I think an investigation can only be made properly if we take a step back. I think that when you want to draw quick conclusions, sometimes you

make mistakes. Then you pay the bill later.

I am a rational person. I am moderate. I am humble. We mustn't be afraid of the truth. We need to see what went right, what went wrong, where the

failures were and then draw lessons for the future. I don't accept the idea that a state such as Belgium would be a failed state.

We are a country that met successes in the fight against terrorism. We thwarted bloody attacks, for example, from Vertier (ph) or with the

American ambassador in Paris in the early 2000s. But there is a failure, just like 9/11 was a failure for the United States, just like London was a

failure for the U.K., Madrid was a failure for Spain. All those --


MICHEL (through translator): -- countries have had to draw the lessons in order to improve the situation for the future.

AMANPOUR: And now it's your turn?

MICHEL (through translator): It is our responsibility and I am determined with my government to implement reforms.

AMANPOUR: Because of course local police in Molenbeek also failed for three months to pass on key leads about Salah Abdeslam's hideout.

Again, it beggars belief when we know that there's this massive ISIS and terrorist operation directed at the West.

MICHEL (through translator): Of course. We need time to investigate and to detain Salah Abdeslam. But we caught him. He was caught alive. And we

didn't have to destroy a building like it happened in other countries.


AMANPOUR: The prime minister would not discuss the details of the investigation.

And when we come back, we ask him, why Belgium?

Why Molenbeek?




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

In the aftermath of these attacks, authorities discovered what they call a super cell, operating between here and France. And, remember, this was the

third major suicide bombing in Europe in 15 months.

I started by asking the prime minister, "Why here?"


AMANPOUR: You have per capita in the European Union the most number of ISIS fighters professing allegiance and going off to Syria. We understand

from authorities who have told CNN that actually a large number of those, a large proportion, are also converts.

I want to know from you, why Belgium?

Why do you think this happened here?

MICHEL (through translator): Well, two answers to that question.

First of all, statistics don't always tell the truth -- for a reason, because, in Belgium, along with those foreign fighters, we count Belgians

and also foreign people who leave from Belgium to go to Syria. Other countries don't do it like that, which really changes the statistics.

Second point, we were the first intelligence service to warn our European counterparts on this trend. We are one of the first to take a close look

at that trend. And obviously, we have stricter statistics and offers (ph).

And third point, to answer your question, Belgium is a small country at the heart of Europe, 11 million inhabitants, a small territory. So from

Belgium it is quite easy to move around and to go to Paris, to London, to Madrid, to Berlin in a few hours by car or a few hours by train, or an hour

by plane barely.


MICHEL (through translator): So our geography is an asset. But it becomes a barrier, a problem for the fight against -- in terrorism.

We have many international institutions in Brussels -- this is the capital of Europe -- 160 different nationalities in Brussels. So obviously, it's

easier to hide, to disappear, compared to other countries. And from Brussels, it is very easy to go to other countries. We need to take that

into account.

And it also means that we need to be able to beef up our security services, intelligence services, in order to have better monitoring.

AMANPOUR: And what are you going to say to new immigrants?

Obviously we've got this huge influx of refugees.

And Europe is still a destination for immigrant because people have asked, is the difference between safety and danger people's allegiance?

Is a person's allegiance when they come here to their new home or is it to their religion, to their ethnic group, to their family and to their


How do you see that?

MICHEL (through translator): Well, I'm very clear on this issue. And I was already very clear on that before the terrorist attack.

When you join Europe, when you reach Belgium, you need to share the democratic fundamental values. And obviously, people have the freedom to

believe or not in something. You can be a Christian. You can be Jew. You can be a Muslim. You can be atheist. This is your own choice.

But the law, the constitution, the law of the people is above God's law. So when somebody arrives in Europe, people need to accept those rules.

For example, gender equality: the division between the church and the state. So the state is neutral and public authorities are neutral. This

is a guarantee so that everybody can have freedom of religion, believe or not in God.

And I really want to insist on these values. I am at the European Council. And with David Cameron, with Francois Hollande, I am one of the most

determined persons to try to convince the European parliament to pass this piece of legislation to make sure that we can monitor people's information.

AMANPOUR: You just mentioned Prime Minister Cameron; I just want to ask you, you know that Britain is in the middle of a big political existential

argument about Europe.

Do you believe Cameron has negotiated an acceptable deal vis-a-vis Europe?

And are you worried what effect do you think it will have on this issue that we're talking if there is a Brexit?

MICHEL (through translator): I have always thought that Brexit was bad for Europe and bad for the U.K. Great Britain would pay a heavy bill if it

were to leave. But we can clearly see that we need to tackle terrorism within Europe.

But we also need to fight terrorism outside Europe. For example, in Syria, Iraq, in Libya, you've got a situation that is really concerning.

And I think that with the U.K., within Europe with the U.K. and other countries, within NATO, we need to see how we can together implement and

set up international coalitions in order to protect our fundamental value model, the democratic model, with fundamental liberties, freedom of the

press, freedom of expression, tolerance, openness.

But the main challenge for our generation in London, in the U.S. or in Brussels, is to make sure that these fundamental freedoms are not used by

our opponents, by the enemies of democracy, to destroy the democratic model and to destroy our way of life.


AMANPOUR: Imagine a world with a silver lining, even after all this death and destruction. That's next.





AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where all this loss, all this sadness stiffens the resolve of a nation.


AMANPOUR: Are you hopeful or pessimistic?

MICHEL (through translator): I am confident, because I believe that freedom, democracy will trump the darkness and will be more powerful than

people who want to destroy freedom.

However, I think there will be other failures in the world. Terrorism is going to continue wreaking havoc. However, I think that, in the long run,

freedom and democracy, positive forces will win. But it depends on our will, on our determination, our capacity to be efficient.

AMANPOUR: Prime minister, thank you very much for joining us.


AMANPOUR: Indeed, it depends on all of us. And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast, watch us online

at and follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching and good night from Belgium.