Lott: Brussels is Europe’s burden

Jeremy Lott

Tuesday’s suicide bomb attacks in Belgium threatened the beating bureaucratic heart of the European Union.

Brussels is the unofficial capital of the EU, housing the EU Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. When British newspapers speak of “Brussels,” it’s shorthand for the EU. Any serious attack on Brussels — and this was a serious attack for which ISIS has claimed credit — thus takes on ideological contours.

Before the bodies were fully sorted, both the “more Europe” and the “less Europe” camps had already sounded off. Ferenc Gyurcsany, liberal former prime minister of Hungary, said the attacks, which left about three dozen dead and hundreds wounded at press time, only prove the need for less “nation state selfishness,” more “common power.”

Mike Hookem, a member of European Parliament representing the U.K. Independence Party, had decidedly different ideas. Speaking from the parliament building in Brussels, Hookem said that the jihadist attacks only showed “they are perfectly placed to exploit the lax security created by the Shengen agreement (on open travel within EU countries) and the EU’s open door policies.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron rebuked Hookem, but the scold was mild. Cameron called it “not appropriate at this time to make any of those sorts of remarks,” from his Downing Street office, which has the Belgium flag hoist at half mast in a show of solidarity. Rather, he counseled, “Today is a day for sympathy and condolence, for enhancing our own security.”

Cameron likely measured his words because his U.K. is set to vote in a June referendum on whether or not to pull out of the EU. Betting markets and political prediction websites significantly notched up the odds voters will opt for “Brexit” after the Brussels bombings. Reminding voters of the attacks by getting into an extended squabble about “too soon” would not help him make the case for staying in.

Speaking from Havana, Cuba, President Barack Obama said what was expected of him. He wished Belgium well, signaled solidarity, condemned the attacks, promised the United States would do “whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally ... in bringing justice to those who are responsible.”

Yet as the American president spoke those words, Europe was more divided than ever, possibly nearing the point of dissolution. The subcontinent is straining at the seams over financial bailouts, an influx of more than 1 million displaced Middle Eastern migrants, the rise of far right and far left parties that threaten to wreck the political order in several European countries all at once.

The president did not cause this problem. But his actions in Syria, committing America to both fighting ISIS and undermining Assad at the same time, likely made things worse by helping usher a larger group of refugees into Europe. Belgium had the third highest Muslim population of European nations already. That is not a problem on its own, but observers have noticed an increasing radicalization of enough of that population to be a problem. In some neighborhoods, threats and violence are on the rise and the veil is coming back.

It’s the sort of problem that America is ill-equipped to deal with, or even really understand. For all our talk of welcoming the “religion of peace,” to quote the last president, very few Americans are of Arab origin. Even fewer of those are Muslims. So our hands-on experience with integrating the people Europe is struggling to shelter and integrate is very limited. We can be supportive, and certainly coordinate with law enforcement to help with terrorism, but only at the margin.

Like it or not, this is Europe’s burden.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at the American Security Initiative Foundation.