Bonjour, Hallo or Guten Tag my dear readers! Phew, that stretched my language skills with a combination of French, Flemish and German! Today, we are off to a country which has all three as official languages – Belgium.
Long associated with the European institutions, which are based in the Belgian capital Brussels, it is actually the Belgian nation I want to concentrate on in this article.
Following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris last November, the Belgian nation became a focus of intense discussion. Much like Pakistan and England, which have often come under severe scrutiny for being alleged ‘incubators of terrorism ‘ (the phrase has often been deployed by Fox News and the Daily Mail and various other right wing outlets), the normally overlooked state of Belgium, and its Liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel, were put under the spotlight and tagged with this ignominious label. The think tank, ICSR, which specialises in the study of radicalisation, claimed that for every 1 million people of its population, 40 had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq for Daesh (or ISIL) the highest rate in Europe per capita. Politico Magazine in Europe even asked ‘Is Belgium a failed state?’ When it was suspected that plans for the Paris attacks and three Belgian citizens were implicated in conducting this terrible assault, the focus of investigators zeroed in on the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek.
The questions which were initially posed were how these attackers were able to go undetected for so long and what was going wrong in Belgium? While these are serious questions worthy of answering they are not exclusive to Belgium. It is easy to forget that alongside some of the picturesque, cobbled streets of historic Brussels there exist areas of deprivation and an underclass, which has grown up knowing only unemployment and truancy from school. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, Brussels may be the third richest region in the European Union but areas like Molenbeek have 30.9% unemployment compared to the affluent Etterbeek district with 19.1%. If we are asking the above questions it is also worth considering why so many white, working class people in the USA are willing to support a candidate like Donald Trump, the brash scapegoater in chief!? A feeling of missing out on the many benefits of globalisation and isolation is not a Belgian issue it is just a feeling that has many different guises all across the world. However, I am at risk of deviating somewhat from Belgium today, so I will just leave you to ponder over that point dear reader.
Now, Belgium before the attacks in France attracted the headlines for another unwelcome reason. After elections in June 2010 it took Belgian legislators 589 days to form a government, a new world record. The chief tension was between the two main communities in Belgium, the French speaking Walloons and the Dutch speaking Flemish citizens. This need to satisfy both groups has filtered down into the functioning of state institutions. The Belgian Premier, Mr Michel, in a recent interview with the Flemish TV broadcaster, VRT, acknowledged that Molenbeek has ‘big problems.’ The problem is emblematic of the main deficiencies of the Belgian state, a near of labyrinth of red tape and overlapping government agencies (with some reluctant to exchange what could be useful information). For example, the city of Brussels has six police zones and 19 mayors and the boundaries of each suburb are somewhat fuzzy, even to long standing Brussels residents. This inevitably causes some confusion to the untutored when you go to set up a bank account or file your annual property tax return.
These issues are mirrored up into the inter-state level as Belgium was condemned by the media and some politicians in France for not sharing what could have been vital intelligence in preventing the atrocities. The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, directed this very accusation quite pointedly France 24 reported at the time.
However, Belgium’s State Security Service (the main national intelligence agency) had prior to the incidents last year, been making efforts to clamp down on extremist outfits by sending several known leaders of these outfits to jail and confiscating forged passports and ID cards, and tackling radicalisation in prison. The European Union’s main security agency, Europol, had for many years been crying out for better co-ordination amongst Member States and enhanced levels of information exchange. Despite being the ‘Cinderella’ of European organisations and receiving little in the way of funding or pooling of resources, it did have some notable successes in the fight against the criminal networks which underpin the terrorist menace. In 2012, in an Operation codenamed Pakoul, it busted a notorious people smuggling ring centred on Afghanistan and which spread into France, Belgium, the UK and Greece. So my point here is that with a Europe-wide open border system, which I fully support, it requires a European-style ‘FBI’ and well resourced and strictly enforced external border controls. No half measures will do.
What Belgium can do alone though, is make a greater effort to integrate new arrivals and combat racism. In February, the National Bank of Belgium published its annual report which underlined that Belgium had one of the poorest records out of all EU countries in providing job opportunities for non-EU arrivals. Only 40.5% of these newcomers between the ages of 20-64 have a job compared to 68.6% for Belgian nationals. Besides Sweden, nowhere else in the EU has such a disparity. As the EU absorbs a record number of refugees, Belgium noted a record number of 44,760 asylum seekers (most of them under 40 years of age) in 2015 according to the Belgian Interior Ministry, this issue is becoming critical. As an example, more language courses and cultural education programmes should be provided to fresh arrivals. In the long term they could become advantageous and boost the economy, as the current generation of workers moves ever closer to retirement age.
The European Commission, stated that the GDP growth rate for 2015 was 1.4%, up from 1.3% in 2014, which shows a positive and promising improvement in the Belgian economy, an opportunity which can be utilised to provide employment for the extra manpower Belgium now has.
In conclusion, I am not saying that there is an easy solution or easy way to integrate asylum seekers but what is needed is collective action at the European level on the security front, and better integration in the labour market particularly, as well as closer attention paid to ethnic minority youngsters in areas like Molenbeek. As a former resident of Brussels I enjoyed the hospitality of its citizens, no matter what their background, and they have a country which cannot be lumped among the tragic list of failed states around the world (besides use of terminology like failed state should not be used loosely in my view!) but there is always room for constructive improvement, and I say that as a candid friend of Belgium.