Belgium is battling accusations that it has become a “failed state” whose linguistic and communal divisions contributed to failures that let it become a jihadist base for the Paris attacks.
Years of increasing federalism have deepened rifts between the wealthy country’s French-, Flemish- and German-speaking regions, leaving it with little sense of nationhood and a dysfunctional, multi-layered bureaucracy.
A brief moment of unity in the face of its own terror alert in Brussels merely papered over the underlying problems that made Belgium unable to dismantle a leading European jihadist hotspot that produced two of the Paris attackers.
Internationally there has been harsh criticism since French President Francois Hollande said that the Paris attacks which killed 130 people were “planned in Syria, prepared and organised in Belgium.”
French newspaper Le Monde warned in an editorial this week that “this state without a nation risks becoming a nation without a state”.
Politico Europe commentator Tim King went even further, saying “Belgium is a failed state” while Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper dubbed it “Belgistan”.
“The problem is that in Belgium you have a federal police force, but generally the police are from local forces. So the powers of the interior minister exist but are limited, and that poses political problems,” analyst Claude Moniquet told AFP.
– ‘Islamo-socialism’ –
Belgium is a relatively modern invention, born in 1830 as an independent state to act as a buffer between France and Germany.
It is now an uneasy mix of a Flemish-speaking, more conservative north and a French-speaking, poorer left-leaning south with a small German-speaking population near the border.
But any illusion of political unity on the terrorism issue was shattered on Tuesday, when the main Flemish nationalist party accused the francophone socialist party of “Islamo-socialism” and failing to counter radicalism.
“Twenty years of laxity by the Socialist Party and of Islamo-socialism have brought us where we are today, with Brussels as the rear base for Islamic barbarism,” lawmaker Karl Vanlouwe, whose N-VA party is part of the coalition government of Prime Minister Charles Michel, said in a vitriolic article in the newspaper Le Soir.
His criticisms focused on the run-down Brussels district of Molenbeek, which was home to at least three of the Paris attack suspects and been branded a haven for jihadists by the government.
The former socialist mayor of Molenbeek from 1992 to 2012, Philippe Moureaux, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the march of radicalism in the area.
Hassan Bousetta, a specialist on the politics of integration from Belgium’s Liege University, said that the problem was a wider one involving a “profile of disaffected young men of Moroccan or Algerian origin” in an area of high unemployment that the Belgian state had failed to tackle.
“The absence of strong links within a community generates jihadism,” he told AFP.
The fragmented state is ill-equipped to deal with many problems.
Belgium after all holds the world record for the longest period that a country has gone without a government — 541 days after elections in 2010.
– 19 mayors, 6 police chiefs –
Police operations are hampered by the fact that Brussels has 19 mayors and six different district police chiefs for the capital, with whom everything must be coordinated in different languages.
The system leads to moments of surreal bureaucracy, such as the fact that Brussels airport remained on a level three terror alert while the city itself was on the highest level of four, because the airport is officially in the Flemish-speaking region that surrounds the capital.
Le Monde said that Belgium had shown “too much tolerance” and was “prisoner to an institutional debate which one could have found picturesque but is now turning tragic.”
Belgium’s La Libre newspaper reacted angrily, saying that “French condescension knows no limits”, but admitted that criticisms would be easier to accept “if it was a state that was a model of coexistence and integration.”
Migration and multiculturalism expert Andrea Rea said many of the domestic criticisms of the Belgian system’s dysfunctionality were more about political point-scoring and the rivalry between the Flemish separatists and the French-speaking socialists than reality.
“It is more pertinent to point to a lack of coordination at the European level,” said Rea, a professor at the Free University of Brussels. “The jihadists think transnationally, while the police are stuck in their national positions.”