Belgium was already being heavily criticised, especially by France, following the attacks in Paris and the endless search and final capture of Abdeslam Salah, the only living kamikaze from the Paris terror attacks. To celebrate the arrest, the French President and the Belgian Prime Minister held a joint press conference.
That harmonious situation was shortlived. On March 22nd, the same people who had given shelter to Abdeslam in Brussels blew themselves up at the airport and in the city underground. The police and the rescue services had to communicate by WhatsApp and private telephones, because the emergency communications network is outdated and saturated. But that was not the reason why the underground was not evacuated immediately after the attacks. It was due to a lack of coordination. There was a lapse of one hour between the suicide bombing in the airport and the one in the city, but the order never arrived. Politicians and people in different levels of power spent a week blaming each other to avoid responsibility.
This lack of coordination is a surprise in a country which should have developed a good intelligence system, since it is the EU member state from which, in proportion to its population, more jihadists have gone to Syria. Furthermore, neighbourhoods in its capital city like Molenbeeck have become home to networks of radicals exported from attacks like the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The lax attitude of the Belgian authorities is quite clear.
The city lives in a state of permanent alert. During the search for Abdeslam, when the capital’s alert level was 5, European officials and other employees worked from their homes. Schools and most businesses were closed. The streets were empty. The negative impact on the economy was signifcant, as well as the damage to Brussels’ international image.
The Belgian authorities know that if this continues, the risk of the city losing its capital status in Europe is very real. Such a situation is incompatible with being the headquarters for EU institutions, NATO and many multinational companies. “We must clearly address the deficiencies in Belgium’s security,” said the European Digital Agenda Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, in a recent interview in Bild newspaper.
Nationalist forces in the country have pushed through so many state reforms to empower regions like Flanders (six in the last 50 years) that Brussels itself, with its 19 communes and six police zones, is difficult to understand for a foreigner and even sometimes for the Belgians themselves. Belgium’s existentialism also raised questions about the status of Brussels as the EU capital in 2010. At that time, the separatist tensions were led by the N-VA party which is in government today. It would be natural for the N-VA, nationalistic and very restrictive on immigration, to use the current situation to advance its own agenda. But it has a problem which it does not know how to solve: the current Interior Minister Jan Jambon, a party member, is in the eye of the storm due to errors related to the terrorist attacks.
Belgium as the EU’s mirror
But Belgian’s institutional chaos and the fact that Brussels is a breeding ground for jihadists does not overshadow the fact that they are able to move across the continent with extraordinary ease. And this highlights problems of coordination and intelligence, as well as geostrategy. For years we have acted as if what was happening in neighbouring countries such as Syria was not going to affect us.
The day after each attack, European leaders admitted that the exchange of information between security services could have been better. But nothing changes. It is not expected that a European Intelligence Agency able to collect and unify information will be created. There is an agreement to collect air passenger data in a system called PNR (Passenger Name Record) which affects only those who travel by air, as if there were no other mode of transport. The PNR would have been completely useless in the attacks on Paris and Brussels.
*Image: Flickr / Diamond Geezer