Brussels, for all that it is a very important European city, is physically quite small. You can easily cycle from one side of the city to the other in 40 minutes, if the traffic lights are benign. The population is barely over a million, though that number swells during the working day as commuters come in from the surrounding countryside and smaller towns. Narrow streets, tall buildings and a tradition of living in apartments ensure that the inhabitants are efficiently packed into a small area.
Usually, we see the convenience of living cheek-by jowl, but on Tuesday, when jihadi terrorists detonated bombs at the airport and in a metro station, killing at least 31 people and injuring 270 more, those advantages were turned on their head.
Brussels National Airport is, by modern standards, very close to the city centre – just eight miles from the prime minister’s office in the centre. The airport is across the city boundary into Flanders, but not by much – so that complaints about aircraft noise and the changing flight-paths are a longstanding source of dispute between the Brussels and Flemish regions.
The suicide bombers took a taxi to the airport from their hideout, which was a stone’s throw from Schaerbeek station, site of one of the city’s newest tourist attractions: Train World opened in September, just two months before Belgium’s tourist trade nosedived in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Next week sees the opening of a railway tunnel that will take trains directly from the European Union quarter to the airport – until now, the travelling EU officials and attendant lobbyists had either to take trains from the centre of town, or take a bus, or compete for taxis – apparently with suicide bombers (who, we are told, would have done more damage but the taxi didn’t have room for all their luggage).
The railway tunnel to the airport has been a long time in the making. Tunnelling is difficult in Brussels because the soil is so sandy, and therefore prone to collapse. The railway work has blighted the EU neighbourhood over the past decade, particularly the parts around the Schuman roundabout, which is the hub around which the various headquarters of the European Commission, the European Council and the EU’s diplomatic service have been placed.
Part of the new railway line goes under a corner of the European Council’s glassy new headquarters building, still under construction and supposed to open next year. In the light of Tuesday’s events, putting a railway line under future meetings of Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande (or their successors, but perhaps not David Cameron’s) looks imprudent.
The railway infrastructure company, attempting to repair neighbourhood relations, had invited residents to take a guided tour of the tunnel on the evening of 24 March, followed by snacks and a warm drink at Schuman station. The bombers pre-empted the invitation.
Maelbeek station, scene of Tuesday’s second bomb attack, is the next stop in towards the city centre along the Metro line from Schuman – barely 300 metres away. Many of those evacuated in the darkness from stranded trains emerged to daylight through Schuman station. Not that they had far to come. Compared to the London Underground, the Brussels Metro is barely beneath the surface, which meant that the walking wounded from the Maelbeek bomb were soon to be found on the surrounding streets.
The Belgian state is now coming under intense criticism. The previous week’s moment of triumph – the capture of Salah Abdeslam, one of the alleged perpetrators of the attacks in Paris on 13 November – was swiftly trumped by Tuesday’s murders. Evidence mounts that the network that planned and effected the Bataclan attacks maintained the ability to stage further attacks, despite the counter-terrorism efforts of the succeeding four months. Belgium, already on the rack for exporting terrorism to France, now stands accused of failing to protect its own inhabitants. The questions as to who knew what, when, are multiplying by the hour.
How deep will the wounds of Tuesday’s atrocities run? The multicultural tolerance of Brussels is too strong to be put seriously in doubt. Confidence in the police or in the safety of the transport network is more fragile. Faith in the political establishment – frequently in question in a fragmented and linguistically divided country – is holding up, for the moment.
But the politicians have work to do – not least to find the money, equipment and people to boost their intelligence and counter-terrorism services, to bring together the fragmented police services, and to improve the prisons, which are centres of radicalisation. The enormity of Tuesday’s events ought to trigger a wider re-think of how Belgium is governed: too great a respect for local fiefdoms; the regions reluctant to give the federal government the powers and money that it needs. Perhaps that rethink will now happen, in a sober spirit of reappraisal. Then again, it may, like much else in Brussels, run into the sand.