Belgium is politically splintered and vulnerable to terrorism. So is Europe

The Economist reports: Brussels, wrote Tony Judt, is “a metaphor for all that can go wrong in a modern city”. The late historian, writing in 1999, was referring to the civic neglect that has left much of the Belgian capital, home to most institutions of the European Union, an unsightly mess of concrete and roadworks with the worst traffic in Europe. But his words could just as well apply to the string of terrorist plots and attacks that has provided Brussels, and some other Belgian cities, with a scabrous reputation as an incubator of jihadi ideology and a paragon of law-enforcement incompetence.

Belgium has long been the butt of European jokes, thanks in large part to its dysfunctional politics. In 2010-11 squabbles over the rights of Flemish-speakers on the outskirts of Brussels held up the formation of a government for 589 days, a world record. But the terror threat has exposed the darker side of Belgium’s maladministration, in the form of uncoordinated security services and neglected areas like Molenbeek, a down-at-heel Muslim-majority commune in west Brussels. After the Paris attacks, French officials sniped at their Belgian counterparts on learning that several of the perpetrators had hatched their schemes in Brussels. Two had been questioned by Belgian police earlier this year. One of them, Salah Abdeslam, fled to Brussels after having driven three of the Paris suicide-bombers to their destination.

Now Brussels is enduring its own threat. On November 21st Belgian officials raised the terror alert in the capital to its highest level, citing fears of multiple Paris-style attacks. The “lockdown” was not the near-curfew portrayed in some foreign media. Yet schools, shops and underground transport were closed for several days, concerts and sporting events were cancelled and armed troops patrolled the streets. It is hard to think of a European precedent for such a suspension of civic life, and it is not over. A series of police raids failed to net Mr Abdeslam, and Brussels will remain on high alert at least until November 30th. [Continue reading…]

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