BY GLEN NEWEY
A Brief History of a Broken Country
This week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels have refocused attention on Belgium as both a producer and consumer of jihadi violence. It has been noticed that as well as furnishing, from Brussels’s Molenbeek district, many of the gangs that carried out last November’s attacks in Paris, the country has also produced the highest proportion of jihadis to travel to fight in Syria. Much has been made, too, of the oddness of Belgium, a nearby country (for Western Europeans, at least) of which many know little, and how this oddness bears on the facts of terrorism. Less has been said, though, about how Belgium’s oddness, for ill as well as good, typifies that of the European Union as a political project and how that might also figure among the terrorists’ targets.
One of the triggers for the revolt, seemingly trivial, has since cast a long shadow over Belgian politics: the Francophone Walloons rose in pique at the Dutch king’s veto of a proposal for a French-language teacher training college in Liège. As Catholics, the Dutch-speaking Flemings had a dog in the fight, too, against the Calvinists from Holland. So the split, when it came, was not between a wholly Francophone Belgium and a religiously hybrid Netherlands, but a fully Catholic but linguistically hybrid Belgium and its northern, Calvinist-dominated neighbor. Even the post-revolutionary flag is a strange hybrid, with proportions (13 units to 15 units) unlike those of any other, and it’s a tricolor, as if the country couldn’t choose between republicanism and monarchy. The king has to have two different names — currently Philippe/Filip — to keep everyone happy (actually, not quite everyone, as there are 50,000 German speakers in the southeast, but nobody worries much about them). It’s a running joke among Flemings how badly King Philippe (and before him, Baudouin and Albert) speak their language.
In The City and the City, the British fantasy novelist China Miéville describes the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, located in different countries, which occupy closely overlapping physical spaces. While the spaces of Besźel and Ul Qoma closely interpenetrate each other, they are perceived by the Besźelians and Ul Qomans as quite distinct; each, as Miéville puts it, “unsees” — basically looks through — without consciously registering the presence of the other’s buildings and inhabitants. While the novel seems to be set in a Middle European-Balkanese locale, its most obvious real-world avatar is Belgium and Brussels in particular. When I lived in Brussels, in the suburb of Ixelles, this parallel-worlds sense was underscored by the two universities there, one at each end of l’Avenue de l’Université: the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Separated by a kilometer of road, with names identically translatable, these institutions occupied, as far as I could tell, entirely separate worlds.
It’s not that Flemish and Walloon Belgians hate each other; it’s more that they don’t really see the point of one another. They unsee their other-language-speaking compatriots each day, at least in Brussels. My suggestion to colleagues that they adopt the expedient of nominating English as the country’s one official language was met with rejection. Modern Belgium testifies to the influence of cultural factors like language on political unity. But this influence works both ways. On the one hand, the country is a congeries of mutually indifferent strangers, mustering cohesion through such Belgian pride-objects as chocolate, fries, Trappist beer, and, latterly, the national soccer team; at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, its games were shown on large open-air screens. Fans chanted “Belgium!” rather than “La Belgique!” or “België!” On the other hand, the language issue poisons national politics. Debates about re-routing flight paths to Zaventem airport quickly descend into wrangling about which language group will be hit hardest.Debates about re-routing flight paths to Zaventem airport quickly descend into wrangling about which language group will be hit hardest.
It’s tempting to put down Molenbeek’s Islamic State cells, which planned the November attacks in Paris and may also be behind those just sprung in Brussels, to the Belgian state’s lack of substance. But this claim needs care. Certainly, one of those widely known factoids about Belgium — that in 2010 to 2011, it survived 589 days without a government — testifies to the fact that the country manages to go on with only vestiges of central authority. The country is a hyper-federalist entity, in that the central power is divided along multiple dimensions (and not just a state-based one, as in the United States or in Germany). There is regional division but also the non-coinciding ones of language and of community. Then there is so-called “pillarisation,” the splitting of society into distinct vertical piliers or zuilen — Catholic, liberal, and socialist — each with its own institutions, extending not just to political parties, but also trade unions, health insurance firms, hospitals, schools, newspapers, and so on. The language business means that each of these has to be duplicated for Flemish, French, and German speakers; so, for instance, there are hospitals not just for these linguistic groups, but for each of the Catholic, liberal, and socialist subdivisions.
Pillarisation is not exclusive to Belgium. It exists also in the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. Salah Abdeslam, logistician and attacker manqué in Paris, was a petty criminal and habitual alcohol and drug user who was attracted to, and given direction by, fundamentalist Islam. He was born in Belgium, but such stories of conversion can happen more or less anywhere. Since the background of the Paris attackers became known, reports have dwelt on their status as marginalized descendants of immigrants from the Maghreb. There is certainly a lot of virulent racism in Belgium, toward not only those of North African origin, but Jews and Congolese among others. But conditions in Molenbeek aren’t obviously worse than in the Congolese-dominated Matongé district, which has not earned a reputation for producing terrorists. Nor, unlike the Congolese, is there a Belgian colonial legacy for people of the Maghreb to resent. The weak Belgian state might be partly responsible for the many drifters in its midst, but it can’t be fairly blamed for their dangerous ideology.
What is true, however, is that the civil and political balkanization of Belgium creates an environment — though it’s hardly unique in this regard — where those terrorists that do reside there can organize undetected. Abdeslam lasted for four months on the run, much of it in his home patch in Brussels — a not-that-large city of around 1.1 million inhabitants which manages to engird 19 communes, each with its own mayor and civic panjandrums. Intercommunal cooperation is not to be taken for granted, not least because it often has to straddle the language divide. Nor is information-sharing or cooperation between intelligence services and the police, either within Belgium’s borders or beyond. Although much is being made in by the “Remain” camp in Britain’s referendum campaign of the boon of European security cooperation, this remains largely notional. Abdeslam’s arrest seems to have been prompted by a walk-in informant. Intelligence cooperation between French and Belgian police seems to have been minimal. It should also be said that insofar as there is anything approximating a national public sphere in Belgium, it is egregiously complacent. Such a sphere might do several jobs: circulate a common coin of political legitimation, focus allegiances, voice basic shared values, provide shared reference points by which to relate to the polity and the world outside.
But if this is true of Belgium, what does this say about the larger continent? Belgium is often said to be a microcosm of the European Union. Similarly, it could be said, Brussels is a mini-version of Belgium — now mainly Francophone and thus an enclave within Flanders (the capital, incidentally, is one of the main obstacles to a Walloon-Flemish divorce). Social media and whoever organizes the floodlighting of public buildings at night have dutifully lit them in the Belgium mock-tricolor. But unlike Paris/France, Brussels/Belgium boasts no very distinct cultural or evaluative resonance. It could be said of Belgium (as French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said of the 1848 revolutions) that it was made “without an idea.” Its and Brussels’s Rorschach-blot quality could be said to suit it ideally for the role of European metropolis.
If Belgium is a country designed by committee, then the EU looks like it was designed by a Belgian. What’s striking, though, about responses to Tuesday’s attacks is that they have been taken almost universally as events in and of Belgium, rather than the European Union — even though the Maelbeek metro bombing was on the doorstep of the EU’s headquarters. But Brussels’s position at “the heart of Europe,” as the New York Times put it in reporting on the attacks, gives it the symbolic plangency it would otherwise lack. Perhaps if one bears in mind the echoes within the EU of past European imperial ventures — aiming, as under Charlemagne or Napoleon, to rule the continent by force of ideas as well as arms — it, too, emerges as a victim of the Brussels attacks. That remains so despite what even its fiercest proponents agree is the project’s incompleteness, if not also its Belgic incoherence.