My favourite set of guidebooks to Brussels and the surrounding area is organised according to streams and river valleys. Recent events have made some of these streams world-famous. When the Paris attacks were traced back to Brussels, Molenbeek, a tributary of the River Dyle, was sent racing around the globe because it gives its name to the impoverished inner-city district where various of the attackers made their home.
The word “beek” is simply Dutch for “stream”, of the same origin as the “beck” used in northern England. Last week, when jihadi terrorists struck again with bomb attacks at Brussels Airport and on the city’s Metro, the world became acquainted with Maelbeek, the station that a train was leaving when it was destroyed by a suicide bomber.
The Maelbeek river valley runs through the heart of the Euro-quarter of Brussels. Now Schaerbeek has also claimed its place in the international lexicon of terror. After the devastation of 22 March, it emerged that the attackers had established their bomb factory in that suburb.
One of the most painful and politically incendiary questions being asked since the attacks is why the Metro network was not shut down and travellers evacuated after the airport bombs. For more than an hour the Metro trains carried on running. David Dixon, a Briton working in Brussels, contacted relatives in England to let them know he had not been affected by the airport attack, only to be killed in the explosion at Maelbeek.
Attempting to answer that question in parliament, Jan Jambon, the interior minister, suggested the decision to stop the Metro had been taken in principle but not implemented by officials. More blame-shifting will surely follow.
Jambon is from the conservative Flemish separatist N-VA party. At the end of last year he declared his intention to “clean up Molenbeek”, long mismanaged by the francophone Socialists. The enmity between francophone Socialists and the N-VA runs deep. On Easter Sunday, racist thugs styling themselves as “Belgian Hooligans” marched from Midi Station to the Place de la Bourse – the scene since Tuesday evening of a peace vigil and informal memorial to those killed in the attacks. Yvan Mayeur, the mayor of Brussels, then accused Flanders of contaminating the city with its extremists who, he said, were followers of the N-VA and its leader, Bart De Wever.
N-VA is used to fending off accusations of links to racist extremism. A constant theme of Belgian politics from the late 1980s to the early years of the 21st century was the rise of the Vlaams Blok, a party which, though Flemish separatist in origin, found greater electoral success by adding a racist, anti-immigration message. The response of the other parties was to agree a cordon sanitaire, promising not to enter into coalition with the Vlaams Blok in any local, regional or federal governments.
At the other end of the political spectrum, but on both sides of Belgium’s north-south linguistic divide, the socialist parties that had been weakened by deindustrialisation saw the rising population of migrants from North Africa as a fresh source of votes. In retrospect, the combined effect of the cordon sanitaire and the socialists’ dependence in some cities on Muslim votes made taboo any scrutiny of what passed for multiculturalism. It gave too much tolerance to mosques preaching radical strains of Islam. It failed to engage with disastrous prison regimes. Islamist terrorism is a recent phenomenon, but the preconditions in Brussels provided some unusually hospitable soil.
De Wever’s N-VA is now the biggest party in Flanders and has most seats in the Flanders national parliament, though the N-VA is only 15 years old. The past three decades have brought a progressive devolution from the national to the regional governments, partly in response to Flemish separatism, partly in response to the growing asymmetry, political and economic, between Flanders and Wallonia.
The effect of this has been to impoverish Brussels, caught in the middle, and weaken the federal government. Effective counterterrorism requires integration and centralisation, yet there will be none if N-VA does not recognise that the Brussels regional government needs more resources, as does the federal government. There will be even less if the francophone socialists see every attempt to reform Brussels as an N-VA plot.
The Belgian political class would do better to go back to hydrographical maps than to rely on the artificial construct of the Metro diagram. This is a country that is small and connected: it makes no sense to pretend otherwise.