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Belgium: a failed state? Well…

Belgium: a failed state?  Well…

Photographer:Fotograaf: Politico Magazine

‘Belgistan’ is a failed state, the media say and that is why it is having so much trouble curbing the jihad reign of terror. But in this analysis people are not seeing the whole picture, argues Georgi Verbeeck, Belgian, senior lecturer of History at FASoS and part-time professor at KU Leuven.

Immediately after the attacks in Paris, Belgium suddenly also found itself in the middle of an international storm. The public had discovered that Brussels was a supplier of Jihad terrorists. An unprecedented high number of Syrian fighters - in relative terms - and the fact that potential attackers had easily gone undetected by the police, showed Belgium in a particularly bad light. After the events in Paris, the usual stream of comments, reflections and warnings emerged by real or self-proclaimed experts. But some criticism from abroad hit especially hard. In the American magazine Politico an article was published about Belgium as a failed state. NRC Handelsblad went a step further. It spoke of ‘Belgistan’.  A failed state – yes, you are reading it correctly. In the centre of Europe there is a country that runs in the same league as, let’s say, South Sudan, Somalia and, yes, Syria.

In Politico, commentator Tim King digs deep into the marsh of Belgian history in order to explain the present misery. Belgium became a national state relatively late, has a long tradition of ideological contrasts, struggles with the legacy of the deindustrialisation of the Walloon provinces, and its never-ending language dispute have given the country a poor reputation, internationally. The ‘sorrow of Belgium’ refers to the murder of socialist politician Andre Cools at the beginning of the 1990s, the Dutroux affair, and many other sordid corruption scandals.

The fact that Molenbeek has become the ‘capital of jihadism’ is no coincidence, but the direct result of the failure of the Belgian state. The tribal disputes had made Belgium ungovernable. Who doesn’t remember when Belgium, not so long ago, broke the world record for the longest cabinet formation crisis – and so also the record for being ungoverned? The administrative chaos in Brussels had created a monster, or so it appears now after the bloodbath in Paris.

It is a crazy ride through the history of the Low Lands, which ends with Salah Abdeslam and his associates.

A dysfunctional country, said King, which for a long time only occupied the Belgians and had a certain amount of charm. But now the rest of Europe was in danger of having to pay the price of Belgium’s failure.

Politico is not a widely read magazine. But it becomes more painful when the message is repeated in the respected New York Times and finds response in a large number of international newspapers. Most Belgians react rather bewildered to so much image damage. Nobody can deny the administrative, managerial and police shambles in Brussels. And almost everyone – especially Flemish politicians – feels that the time has come to put an end to the bizarre construction of ‘Brussels’ (1 district, 19 autonomous municipalities, 6 police zones). The problem is that the foreign press is (largely) right in their statement of the facts. Compared to its neighbouring countries, Belgium has a weak administrative culture and a long tradition of alienation between inhabitants and their government. That the ‘provincialisation’ and ‘localisation’ of Belgian politics has had detrimental results, is simply true. There are hardly any politicians who have a ‘national interest’. The question is whether the loosely suggested link between everything that happened in the past should inevitably have led to today’s problems. And for convenience’s sake, many issues are overlooked in these rapidly presented analyses. To mention but a few: Brussels’ complicated structure has nothing to do with the reform of the state. There is no mention of the role of Wahhabism in Brussels, through the direct connection with Saudi Arabia. And lastly, that Brussels is affected by what happened in Paris is directly linked to the space that the French-speaking world offers to terrorists. Their area of operation doesn’t end in Roubaix or Rijsel, but on the north side of Brussels. 

To be clear: the concept of failed state, a country that is deemed a failure based on a number of political, social and economic parameters, has gone out of fashion. We now speak, somewhat more carefully, of fragile states. The American think tank Fund for Peace compiles an annual index. Belgium comes after (i.e. is better than) countries such as the United Kingdom, the US, or Japan. And it is only three places ahead of the Netherlands.

Georgi Verbeeck



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