Why Belgium?

Belgium’s inherent weakness, which dates from a distant era in European politics, is now Europe’s weakness too — and on Tuesday the terrorists showed that they know how to take advantage of it

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:59 am IST

Published - March 24, 2016 01:47 am IST

Terrorist violence is a global problem. Cities across the world all have to be on their guard. Although it is Brussels that dominates the headlines now, the explosions there came only hours after jihadi gunmen attacked a European Union (EU) military training base in Bamako in Mali. Yet while the problem may be global, the ingredients are almost always specific and local too.

Any authoritative explanation of what happened in Brussels, and how and why, will require weeks of patient granular forensic scrutiny and information gathering on the ground. But there may, in addition, also be a longer view to take in order to more fully understand how the capital city of Belgium is currently so often in the terrorist front line. Why Belgium?

The making of Belgium

It surely matters to some degree that Belgium is a “weak” nation state embodying a precarious national idea. Julius Caesar may have fought the tribes he called the Belgae, but in historical terms Belgium is also a recently invented country, with shallower roots and more conditionally constructed institutions than many other European states. In some ways Belgium resembles the kind of country that colonial powers created in 19th-century Africa and the Middle East, a country drawn on a map to suit the interest of powerful others.

In Belgium’s case, the most important of these powerful others was Britain. In the aftermath of the Brussels uprising of 1830 — probably the only political revolution in European history to begin in a riot in an opera house — Britain moved decisively to oversee the creation of Belgium as a buffer state between France and the Netherlands. Britain did this to ensure that Antwerp and the mouth of the river Scheldt did not come under hostile control or become “a standing menace to the Thames”, as the Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury once put it. Belgian independence and neutrality was even guaranteed by a treaty of London, crafted by Lord Palmerston in 1839, in defence of whose principles Britain went to war in 1914. The country may be Belgium — but it was Made in Britain.

Belgium’s weak state reflects the fundamental fact that roughly three-fifths of Belgium’s modern population lives in Flanders, is Flemish speaking, and has deep cultural connections with the modern Netherlands to the north; meanwhile the other two-fifths are French-speaking Walloons, once prosperous but now increasingly economically marginalised and linked culturally with France to the south. The result from day one of Belgium’s history has been a compromised federal state, loosely held together by a constitutional monarchy originally installed by the British.

Belgium’s institutions inescapably reflect that disjunction. In the political crisis of 2010-11, the country had no elected government for 589 days because of the enduring cultural divide. Almost every aspect of lived experience in Belgium — politics, work, media, universities and civil society — is divided on linguistic grounds. Two-thirds of the inhabitants of Flanders expect the country to fall apart, according to a 2007 poll. The looseness of these ties means that Belgium may lack some of the tools and resiliences that other more unified states possess — even if they do not always use them very well — to deal with terrorism.

This has created three consequences that surely have some bearing on the emergence of Brussels as such an important incubator of the terrorist problems of the last few months. The first is the relative weakness and mutual suspicion between Belgian security institutions, which are notoriously reluctant to share information with another, in part because they reflect and are answerable to differing constituencies and conceptions of Belgian security.

The second is Belgium’s long-standing relaxation of borders with its neighbours, reflected first in the Benelux customs agreement dating from 1944 and now in the EU’s Schengen visa-free travel area. The result of this is that Belgium has always been one of the easiest European countries to enter and leave, with very little defence not just against the movement of undesirables — which is accentuated by the rivalries between institutions within Belgium and across the EU — but also against the traffic of arms and explosives.

The third is that Belgium, as the prototypical post-national state within an EU that is itself conceived almost as a Greater Belgium, is now established as the home to most of the institutions of the EU. This makes Brussels a target for jihadi terrorists who want to ferment a conflict in Europe between the states and institutions of Europe on the one hand, and Muslims on the other.

None of this is to say that terrorists are incapable of mounting attacks which take much stronger states than Belgium by surprise. France, after all, is a classic “strong” state with strong institutions and a unified sense of nationhood. But Belgium’s inherent weakness, which dates from a distant era in European politics, is also now Europe’s weakness too — and on Tuesday the terrorists showed that they know how to take advantage of it. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2016

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