Letter from Belgium: Bombers, bureaucrats and failing states

Brussels is looking rather bruised these days. Four weeks after the suicide bombings which killed 32 people, the city’s airport remains partly closed, the Maalbeek metro station is still swathed in crime-scene tape, and the Place de la Bourse is carpeted with flowers. Outside the Gare du Midi, arriving visitors are welcomed by the sight of four hulking army trucks, surrounded by camouflaged, helmeted soldiers fiddling with machine guns. Returning to the city for the first time in several months, I saw far fewer tourists than usual, but military personnel everywhere: soldiers in the train station, soldiers at the supermarket, soldiers at the Cathedral and the Jewish Museum, even soldiers outside Starbucks. “I’m glad I don’t live here”, a Dutch lady confided to me in the line for a pain au chocolat, “It’s just too dangerous”.


Since the attacks, it’s become popular for journalists to describe Belgium in apocalyptic terms, viewing the country not only as a victim of terrorist attacks, but as a cause of them too. Belgian incompetence, the theory goes, has created the conditions under which jihadis can thrive. The title on a recent article in the German magazine Spiegel is typical: “Postcard from a Failed State”. The website Politico was even blunter: “Belgium is a Failed State”.

Such criticisms are nothing new. In Britain and elsewhere, there’s still a tendency to group European countries into one of two categories: sleekly efficient (Norway, Sweden, Germany) or sleepily inefficient (Greece, Italy, Portugal). Belgium, sadly, is often plonked in the latter category; its rich history and culture reduced to little more than truffles, beer and Tintin. In my book, I wrote about how (despite sharing a language) even Dutch people often think of Belgium as “a nice enough place, but also slightly old-fashioned; a country of bad roads, failing businesses and late-sleeping gastronomes”. “What does it say on the bottom of Belgian beer bottles?” a Dutchman on the Eurostar once asked me. “OPEN AT OTHER END!”

Belgians are understandably annoyed by such stereotypes, but there’s clearly something surreal about the way their country is run. Split between a Flemish-speaking north and French-speaking south (as well as an often-ignored German corner in the east), Belgium suffers from a multiple personality disorder which makes governing very difficult. Brussels – a city of 1.4 million people – has no fewer than nineteen different mayors. Pub quizmasters around the world owe the Belgians a huge debt for setting the world record for the longest period without an elected government – 589 days. In the wake of the bombings, the government has often seemed out of its depth. The day before I arrived, the Transport Minister was forced to resign when it emerged she’d been warned about security failures at the airport ahead of the bombings – and then, after the explosions, told the Prime Minister that she hadn’t received the warnings at all.


In Brussels this week, attention still seemed focused on deciding who to blame for the recent atrocities. Should it be the hapless Prime Minister, Charles Michel, or the softy-lefty former mayor, Philippe Moureaux? Were the bombings the fault of the intelligence agencies, or the local police chief, or the EU, or the Salafist preachers? The problem, one prominent mayor said, was that “we were unable to offer [the bombers] a Flemish version of the American dream”. Outside Belgium, things are a bit clearer. Blame has settled not on a person, but a place: Molenbeek, a lower-income area of Brussels which hosted the terrorists behind the attacks, and which has sent hundreds of young jihadis to Iraq and Syria. Investigators have unearthed worrying evidence of tolerance for extremism: the bombers reportedly were able to go out for haircuts without fear of being reported to the police, and the local mayor told reporters there was a spirit of omertà in the neighbourhood; a code of silence reminiscent of Sicily under the Mafia. Donald Trump, always a reliable source of geopolitical insight, described the area as a “hellhole”. Yet visitors will find that despite its reputation, Molenbeek is not actually a terribly unpleasant place. A bit shabby, for sure, but no different from the overcrowded, litter-strewn concrete jungles which adorn the fringes of London, Amsterdam and Rotterdam too. Whether those similarities are reassuring or disturbing depends on your point of view.

Under a suitably menacing sky, I walked out of the city centre to the European Parliament. On a Friday afternoon, the place was bustling but in a joyless, colourless way; like an unimaginative Chinese architect’s sketch of what a superstate should look like. The distance from Brussels city centre to the Parliament is barely a mile, but it seems much further. Rather than being embedded in its host, the EU hovers aloof over Brussels like a visiting spaceship, orbited by its own constellation of cafes, bars and expense-account restaurants. For all the talk of unity, Eurocrats and Natocrats seem to live lives which are largely separate from the immigrants who serve them as cleaners, doormen and drivers. It’s been suggested that it wasn’t a coincidence that the recent metro bombing took place just after 9am, when the bureaucratic elite were on their way to work, but the cleaning women and night watchmen of Molenbeek were already safely at home. The capital of a divided country is a divided city.


And yet despite all this, to anyone who’s ever spent time in states which are genuinely failing, the idea that Belgium is ‘failing’ is laughable. Incomes are higher than in the U.K. or France; life expectancy is higher than in the U.S., and crime (at least of the non-bombing kind) is low. It’s also important to remember that Belgium isn’t Brussels – outside the capital, there are thriving cities like Antwerp and Gent, and miles of picturesque countryside where Islamic terrorism as rare as bad chocolate. In Brussels, on my way back from Parliament, I came across a protest on the steps overlooking the Grand Place: about sixty people, all dressed as clowns, performing tricks and protesting the detention without trial of a Palestinian performer by the Israeli authorities. I had no idea whether he deserved to be jailed, but it seemed to me that any country where political protest means donning face-paint and juggling coloured balls was probably doing something right.

Belgium undoubtedly faces many challenges – but these are not unique. France is also fighting Islamist terror cells; the Netherlands is also struggling to integrate its disaffected young Muslims; and Britain grapples with its own questions about national identity and unity. At best, both Brussels and Belgium could be models for what Europe should be – diverse but united; historic but forward-looking; run by a state which is decentralised and unassertive. And if all else fails, the Belgians are masters at muddling through.

As the sky darkened, I sat for a while outside a beautiful café, eating a beefy carbonade flamande, drinking delicious brown beer and chatting with the friendly trilingual waiter, and thought: If Belgium is a failing state, then it’s a very successful one. Down but not out; bruised but unbeaten.


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