Stop bashing Belgium!

A continent like Belgium

The country is politically splintered and vulnerable to terrorism. So is Europe
Nov 28th 2015 | From the print edition of The Economist

BRUSSELS, wrote Tony Judt, is “a metaphor for all that can go wrong in a modern city”. The late historian, writing in 1999, was referring to the civic neglect that has left much of the Belgian capital, home to most institutions of the European Union, an unsightly mess of concrete and roadworks with the worst traffic in Europe. But his words could just as well apply to the string of terrorist plots and attacks that has provided Brussels, and some other Belgian cities, with a scabrous reputation as an incubator of jihadi ideology and a paragon of law-enforcement incompetence.

Belgium has long been the butt of European jokes, thanks in large part to its dysfunctional politics. In 2010-11 squabbles over the rights of Flemish-speakers on the outskirts of Brussels held up the formation of a government for 589 days, a world record. But the terror threat has exposed the darker side of Belgium’s maladministration, in the form of uncoordinated security services and neglected areas like Molenbeek, a down-at-heel Muslim-majority commune in west Brussels. After the Paris attacks, French officials sniped at their Belgian counterparts on learning that several of the perpetrators had hatched their schemes in Brussels. Two had been questioned by Belgian police earlier this year. One of them, Salah Abdeslam, fled to Brussels after having driven three of the Paris suicide-bombers to their destination.

Now Brussels is enduring its own threat. On November 21st Belgian officials raised the terror alert in the capital to its highest level, citing fears of multiple Paris-style attacks. The “lockdown” was not the near-curfew portrayed in some foreign media. Yet schools, shops and underground transport were closed for several days, concerts and sporting events were cancelled and armed troops patrolled the streets. It is hard to think of a European precedent for such a suspension of civic life, and it is not over. A series of police raids failed to net Mr Abdeslam, and Brussels will remain on high alert at least until November 30th.

National unity is rarely esteemed by Belgium’s fractious politicians, even in times of crisis, and so it proved this week. A Flemish-nationalist MP accused French-speaking Socialists of allowing “Islamic barbarity” to take hold in Brussels. Local politicians, including the mayor of Brussels, slammed the federal government for imposing such strict measures on the capital. Foreigners, too, have engaged in what the local press terms le Belgium-bashing. Belgium used to be a state without a nation, quipped Le Monde. Now it is becoming a nation without a state.

Some of the barbs are overdone. Belgian police and intelligence agencies have not always worked in harmony, but that is true everywhere. Recent legislative changes have improved co-operation. At the European level, Belgium has enthusiastically pushed for intelligence-sharing; it is countries with heftier secret services, such as Britain and France, that have been reluctant to share information, though that too is changing. As for the lockdown, without access to the intelligence that spurred Belgian officials to place Brussels on high alert, it is hard to assess their decision. But less than a fortnight after 130 people were murdered in Paris, most Bruxellois will surely be in a forgiving mood.

For years outsiders have seen Belgium as a microcosm of Europe: first, in its expression of the dream that domestic differences can be dissolved in a federalist soup; subsequently as an example of north-south mistrust. Recent events provide a third prism: like other European countries, Belgium is floundering in the face of a domestic terror threat. Here, as elsewhere, budget cuts have left police and intelligence services short of resources, including Arabic-speakers. Security officials have a watch-list of some 800 potential or actual foreign fighters, but, like their counterparts in Britain and France, do not have anything like the manpower needed to monitor them all. More funds have lately been devoted to watching people returning from Syria, but at the expense of other intelligence concerns, such as counter-espionage.

Meanwhile, Belgium is dealing with the legacy of its failure to integrate large parts of its Muslim minority. Fairly or otherwise, Molenbeek has become a global byword for jihadism, but similar problems exist throughout the country: a clownish (and now defunct) Antwerp-based group called Sharia4Belgium inspired dozens of young Belgians to leave for Syria. Immigrants and their immediate descendants are far more likely to be unemployed than non-migrant Belgians; their children perform poorly at school. A higher share of the Belgian population has left to join the fight in Syria or Iraq than from any other EU country.

We are all Belgians now

Yet no European country with a large Muslim minority has solved the problem of integration. Britain and France take different approaches, but each has seen scores killed in “home-grown” terrorist attacks. In Sweden, towns like Gothenburg are partially segregated; this week the government executed a screeching U-turn on its asylum policy. Even Germany, which is embarking on its own experiment in integration after having welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has struggled to accept that it is a land of immigration rather than of Gastarbeiter (“guest-workers”). In each of these countries and others, anti-immigration parties are climbing in the polls; in some, they top them.

Twenty years ago the main terrorist threat in Europe came from regional separatists. Ten years ago it was spectacular attacks by al-Qaeda, or groups inspired by it. It is now evolving into something messier, directed against softer targets, organised across borders and linked to gangland crime and weapons-trafficking. (Olivier Roy, a French expert on extremism, speaks of “the Islamicisation of radicalism”.) This raises urgent questions for officials across Europe, not least over how far they are willing to share intelligence and data with their counterparts elsewhere, whether within the EU or in other formats. It is time to stop bashing Belgium. Much of Europe is in the same boat.
From the print edition: Europe