Putting the justice system in order and fighting the drug mafia: what he did as a cabinet member over the past three years, Paul Van Tigchelt is now doing as Minister of Justice. As with its predecessors, the ambitions are steep. “But now we’re doing it.”
“I have a bit of a cold, and for a fifty-year-old man that means I am terminal,” says Paul Van Tigchelt (Open VLD). The new Minister of Justice has not lost his sarcastic humor despite the hectic nature of his new position. Vincent Van Quickenborne, of whom Van Tigchelt was deputy chief of staff, resigned three weeks ago after it emerged that the perpetrator of the attack in Brussels, in which two Swedes were killed, was still at large due to a painful blunder at the Brussels public prosecutor’s office. “His resignation was emotional for everyone in the cabinet,” he says. ‘But it was necessary to restore confidence in the justice system.’
A day later, Van Tigchelt was asked whether he wanted to become the new Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. He didn’t immediately say yes, but deep down he knew immediately. “If I had said no, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.” This determination does not alter the fact that Van Tigchelt still has to get used to the transition from top advisor behind the scenes to his new role. When he talks about Van Quickenborne, he still unconsciously points to the minister’s chair, even though it is now really his.
Van Tigchelt still has two hundred days until the elections. That’s not long to leave his mark on policy. “I come from the cabinet, so I am 200 percent behind the policy we have pursued so far,” he objects. ‘I especially want to complete the things we have started with Vincent: digitalisation, the execution of sentences and the fight against organized crime.’
Drug violence in our country is becoming increasingly common. Customs officers, dock workers, police officers, magistrates and even the Minister of Justice are no longer safe. Did you ever think it would reach those proportions?
Paul Van Tigchelt: ‘When I was a drug magistrate in Antwerp, we had annual seizures of 4 to 5 tons of cocaine. I had a great year in 2012, when we rounded up the customs officer’s gang. We had seized 12 tons of cocaine. That was incredible. Now we have ten times more.’
‘The results we are achieving are truly remarkable. The annual demand for cocaine in Europe is 125 tons. So we’ll confiscate that, right? We feel that this makes criminals nervous.’
These nerves lead to more violence on the streets. It seems like we no longer have control.
Van Tigchelt: ‘I understand that that perception exists. We are dealing with a generation of criminals who will stop at nothing. Events such as the raid on the border inspection post last Friday (where criminals robbed employees looking for seized cocaine, ed.) prove that criminals have to look for other ways to get their hands on their drugs. These other ways can also consist of threatening and intimidating dock workers. We have even received signals that criminals in colleges are proactively looking for impressionable students in the port management course.’
We have already received signals that criminals in colleges are proactively looking for impressionable students in the Port Management course.
‘They will stop at nothing. That is why we use the term narcoterrorism. They want to destabilize us and spread fear like terrorists. But it is precisely because of the efforts we are making that they are now in a corner where blows are being made. Criminals abroad are also worried. There are ‘with the poopers’ there who approach us to settle. Obviously we’re not going to do that. We want them in jail.’
As long as there is a demand for cocaine, criminals will try to get it here. Some therefore argue for legalization.
Van Tigchelt: ‘The first question is: what are we going to legalize? People who argue for this often talk about cannabis, but that is not going to solve our problem of bombs and grenades. Or do we also want to legalize cocaine? And do we produce them here or do we make agreements with Ecuador? I haven’t seen any study or report on how we would do that.”
‘I think that academics should certainly be allowed to have that debate, but in the meantime we are trying to limit the violence. And then I see no alternative to what we do. If we loosen the reins and look away from the problem, we will end up with wars for monopoly on the drug market.’
How are you ever going to win that battle?
Van Tigchelt: ‘The drug mafia is a many-headed monster, and I will be clear: we will of course never win the battle. But it’s our damn duty to make it as difficult as possible for criminals. It is an arms race in which we must constantly adapt. The impact of organized crime is enormous. This ranges from violence to corruption, money laundering and criminals who buy into the regular economy. We can contain that.’
The drug mafia is a many-headed monster, and I will be clear: we will obviously never win the battle. But it’s our damn duty to make it as difficult as possible for criminals.
‘It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t say that to open my umbrella, but I deduce it from what is happening in other countries. Look at Rotterdam: there were 300 incidents involving explosives there in the first half of this year. Mayors and town halls have been attacked. Newspaper editorial offices have been destroyed with firebombs. A lawyer and a journalist have been killed. We have already had a minister threatened with kidnapping. That doesn’t just disappear. Those criminals think they are untouchable.’
How did that happen?
Van Tigchelt: (thinks) ‘The financial resources they can draw from are bottomless. There is a lot of money to be made from the cocaine trade. We seized 40 tons of cocaine in October. If you cut that up, you have 100 tons of cocaine. The street value is 50 euros for 1 gram of cocaine. That amounts to a value of 5 billion euros. In one month that is as much as the federal annual budget of the justice and police combined. I’ve noticed that you can buy a lot with that money.’
Money that the justice department should confiscate.
Van Tigchelt: ‘That has to be improved, and we are working on that. We gave Ine Van Wymersch, the drugs commissioner, 10 million euros. She will set up projects with the police, the judiciary and customs to take away criminal assets. That investment must pay for itself.’
‘The difficulty is that criminal money is often abroad. Last week I was in Morocco, because despite cooperation agreements, it is not possible to sufficiently recover confiscated goods and money there.’
Is our security apparatus up to the task of dealing with the drug mafia? The safety chain is short of resources and money.
Van Tigchelt: ‘The complaint that there are too few people for the judiciary and the police is not correct. There have never been as many police officers in our country as there are today. The number of magistrates has also increased. Compared to neighboring countries, we do not have fewer magistrates or fewer police officers. It is also not a matter of pumping people in until it is under control. The Netherlands has invested in more people, but drug violence has not disappeared.’
Whether Brussels is poorly managed? I will say what I said in Parliament: we can expect dynamic and flexible policies from everyone.
‘But where we see specific shortages, we do invest. The Antwerp public prosecutor’s office and the court were reinforced with 218 people in 2021, 60 of whom were for drug investigation. We are now strengthening Brussels. We have created a security force for the port, because the shipping police were understaffed, which is also what Bart De Wever (the mayor of Antwerp, N-VA, ed.) rightly pointed out. She had 90 people for the entire port and the inland waterways as far as Limburg. That wasn’t okay. Now there are 180 people, and we have to go to 312.’
Isn’t the problem also that there is no staff to be found in the tight labor market?
Van Tigchelt: ‘I see that the labor market is not playing tricks on all security services. When they asked for extra staff in Antwerp to handle the Sky ECC monster dossier, we provided a budget for 61 extra people. They were recruited in three weeks. Why? The public prosecutor’s office had a proactive personnel policy, there were lists of contacts and they knocked on the doors of universities. State security and the port corps also have no trouble finding staff.’
If there is no money or people shortage, there is a problem of organization.
Van Tigchelt: ‘There are 14 public prosecutor’s offices and 5 general public prosecutor’s offices where – and I say this with the greatest respect – everyone does a little bit of sweeping at their own door. We need a more dynamic justice system that can quickly adapt to new circumstances. With the mega case Sky ECC, the justice system has proven that it can do that. Digitization is part of the answer.’
Five justice ministers before you promised the same thing. Why should digitization be successful now?
Van Tigchelt: ‘Because we’re doing it now. Phenix, Mammoet and Cheops were monster projects that failed. They were conceived over the heads of magistrates. We do it differently. We have chosen 29 digital projects that clerks, magistrates and lawyers developed themselves. These are the building blocks of digital justice that we stack step by step. We are now also involving magistrates in the transformation.’
Paul Van Tigchelt
- Bakker’s son from Kempische Weelde, who started his career in law enforcement at the Antwerp public prosecutor’s office in the late 1990s, where he prosecuted drug criminals for many years.
- Worked in the Home Affairs cabinet of then Deputy Prime Minister Patrick Dewael as deputy chief of staff and spokesperson.
- After returning to the General Prosecutor’s Office, he became head of OCAD, the threat analysis body, in 2016. He created the OCAD list, a database of potentially dangerous people or groups that are being monitored.
- Started in Vincent Van Quickenborne’s cabinet in 2020 as Deputy Chief of Justice for Justice and was sworn in as the new Minister of Justice on October 22.
Can you solve the slow procedures and the judicial backlog with digitization alone?
Van Tigchelt: ‘Digitalization does not solve everything. The slowness is part of it somewhere. Both victims and suspects have the right to request additional investigation, which will make it take longer. Sometimes parties have an interest in prolonging a case. But those are the rights of defence.’
Digitization does not solve everything. The slowness is part of it somewhere.
‘There will always be a certain backlog, but in Brussels we have an unacceptable backlog at the Court of Appeal. Civil matters are scheduled in 2028. That is not possible. They have been given extra clerks and magistrates, so now everyone will have to put their hands to the plow. Antwerp has done that too. The backlog has been cleared there.’
So Brussels is poorly managed?
Van Tigchelt: (long silence) ‘I will say what I said in parliament: we can expect dynamic and flexible policies from everyone.’
There will be elections in 200 days. Are you looking forward to campaigning?
Van Tigchelt: ‘It’s something new for me, but I’m looking forward to it. Also to go to the market and to food festivals, yes. That’s part of it. And I like to eat. (laughs)‘
There seems to be a good chance that your political career will be short. Open VLD polls at 7 percent. How will the party continue to climb?
There may be criticism of the justice system, but policymakers who make unqualified and one-sided comments on TikTok are populism and an erosion of the rule of law.
Van Tigchelt: ‘The only thing I can do is take responsibility and ‘throw myself’. I am convinced that people need a strong story. For me, that is one for the liberal constitutional state. I see how it is being eroded more and more. Not only in Poland, Hungary and Israel, but also in our country, policymakers are questioning the independence of judges without prior knowledge.’
‘There may be criticism of the justice system, but policymakers who make unqualified and one-sided comments on TikTok are populism and an erosion of the rule of law. Now I’m in a position to oppose that. That is essential.’