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Insights into Editorial: Why Belgium?

Insights into Editorial: Why Belgium?

24 March 2016

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In the wake of recent terrorist attack in Brussels, which ISIS has claimed responsibility for, there’s one big question on everyone’s mind: Why Belgium? How did this small European country become a hub and a target for radical extremists?

  • It is true that Terrorist violence is a global problem. Cities across the world all have to be on their guard. Yet while the problem may be global, the ingredients are almost always specific and local too.

Why Belgium? Reasons:

  1. An Artificial State:

Belgium, nestled between France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, was established in 1830 to serve as a neutral buffer state between the geopolitical rivals, France and Germany. Belgium’s role as a buffer state effectively came to an end after the end of the Second World War and the subsequent move toward European integration. Over time, Brussels emerged as the de facto capital of the European Union. 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.

  1. Language issue:

The language issue also affects integration. Many jobs in Brussels require knowledge of French, Flemish or Dutch, and now sometimes English, too, while most people speak mostly Arabic and some French. That has blocked integration. Also, for the past three decades, Belgium has faced an existential crisis due to growing antagonism between the speakers of Dutch and French.

  1. Open Borders:

The so-called Schengen Agreement, which allows for passport-free travel throughout most of the European Union, has allowed jihadists posing as migrants to enter Europe through Greece and make their way to northern Europe virtually undetected. Open borders are a huge safety risk.

  1. Weak security institutions:

The security institutions in Belgium are very small and weak. Also, various security agencies in Belgium are suspicious about each other and are often reluctant to share information with another. Security apparatus of Belgium is extremely small as well. Belgian state security only has some 600 employees. Its military counterpart, Adiv, has a similar number. That makes just over a thousand intelligence officers to secure a country that hosts not only Nato and the EU institutions but also the World Customs Organisation, the European Economic Area, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), another 2,500 international agencies, 2,000 international companies and 150 international law firms.

  1. Weak cultural ties:

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. 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.

  1. Easy target:

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 in the recent attack the terrorists showed that they know how to take advantage of it.