Brussels Then, Now, and in the Future
My daily digest of reading this morning started on a troubling if relatively speculative note. As a naturalized Dutch citizen living in the United Kingdom, I take a personal as well as professional interest in Britain's June 23 vote on whether to remain in the European Union. This article in the Financial Times encapsulated the concerns of the 2.9 million EU citizens living here, as it described a rush on applications for British citizenship by long-time residents hoping to avoid their status being subject to "negotiations between the UK and Brussels" in the event of a so-called Brexit.
I'll come back to that topic in proper context. No sooner was that article digested than Twitter feeds, smartphone alerts, and front pages across the web began to blaze with the news of just the latest vicious attack on Europe's open forums. The details are still coming in now, three-quarters of a workday later, with the latest updates being the inevitable claim of responsibility by the Islamic State group, and the disarming, reported by AP, of a third bomb at Zaventem Airport.
Brexit suddenly mattered very little. What mattered, instead, was the safety of friends and colleagues in Brussels. Messages fly across WhatsApp, status updates on Facebook. The defiant face of the Je Suis social media emblem popularized when Paris was attacked last year turns to an acerbic grimace. This is the new normal, and it's sinking in. Projecting further down the line, we in Europe consider our daily commutes -- the trains connecting Utrecht to Amsterdam or Amsterdam to Brussels, or the Eurostar that flies the flag of white-collar European integration under the English Channel between Paris and London -- every journey, every day, is its own small risk. It is a secular reality that is not changing any time soon.
Where security is no longer a given, the politics will only turn ever more sour. Brussels is a synecdoche. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the Belgian and European capital knows the hopes it physically embodies: With its smart, polyglot mix of workers from across the Continent populating the areas around Schuman Square where the European institutions have their home, it gives credence to the ideal of a Europe that works better when it builds together, if you'll excuse the sloganeering. In its own smaller, grittier way, it is as vibrant as London or New York, and every bit as intelligent.
Yet its darker realities in their own parochial way epitomize everything that has gone wrong on a Continental scale within the European Union. The capital of a country divided among itself between Flemish and Walloon aspirations, Brussels has 19 municipal mayors - nineteen! -- creating what German publication Der Spiegel calls a "tangle of bureaucracy" that makes a muddle of basic policing, and helps perhaps explain why the capital of Europe has become the European capital of jihad. Take the view of former FBI and U.S. Army counter-terrorism official Clint Watts, quoted today by CNBC:
"'It is hard to conceive that this would happen on such a large scale when it was so obvious that these guys were operating there,' Watts said of ISIS. ‘After [Abdeslam's] arrest, you would have to assume everyone in the network was preparing to launch whatever they had.'
"‘After the Paris attacks, it was a question of not being able to run all the leads down,' Watts said. After Tuesday, "It's no longer a capacity problem, it's a competency problem.'"
So who does one blame, as the new normal sets in? Some will blame lax security measures, and cry for more enforcement. Some will blame the lack of earnest dialogue on immigration and integration, pointing the finger at failed policies decades old. Perhaps it's the fault of the refugee crisis, or of the inability to track the flow of fighters between Europe and the Middle East. Maybe the neglect and marginalization of immigrant groups will be part of the conversation.
One thing is sure: A citizenry must feel safe before it can be idealistic. Europe as an integrated entity is an ideal, it's a notion. It feels good to take down borders when those borders are seen as hampering prosperity, and when the lack of an external threat keeps harder, more practical questions at bay.
Those questions are now baying. It's hard to say what security measures could keep a handful of society's most motivated losers from acting out their delusions. It is simply too easy, in an open society, to kill lots of people.
So today's new normal moves tomorrow's ever closer: If we aren't safe when we are open, we will close. Europe's mainstream politicians struggle to respond in the aftermath of attacks like this. France's centre-left President, Francois Hollande, put on a tough guise, reiterating bellicose rhetoric he had already used in the aftermath of attacks in Paris in November 2015, but each of these attacks strengthens his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. And it does the same for the Netherlands' Geert Wilders, who sounds perfectly sensible in calling for a closure of the borders. And it does the same in the United Kingdom for Nigel Farage, the original Brexiteer, who wasted no time.
This is where the Old Continent starts to feel, well, old. The idealism that is the European Union is under pressure from every side, but beneath its idealism there has always been a practical intent, which is to bind the Continent in shared peace and prosperity. To paraphrase what a colleague recently told me, it is right now as though the Continent has lain under a blue pan-European veil for decades. As that veil is lifted, it turns out, the same nationalisms, the same mutual suspicions that lay dormant for so long, are still alive. Their voices are getting louder, and as Brussels becomes a symbol for failed ambition -- ambition to open borders without securing them, ambition to open up the economy without unifying it -- their chorus may overwhelm the rest. That is the crescendo that brings us to the Brexit vote on June 23 -- a key test for whether Europe as a whole can survive the moment.
If it doesn't, yesterday's Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or Je Suis Paris, may well turn into a new, unspoken reality: On est seul. Today, from Brussels to Bristol, that reality feels as close as ever.