The Day Brussels' pan-European Bubble Burst

The legions of EU bureaucrats based in the Belgian capital have much to ponder during this Easter vacation.

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Masked Belgian police takes part in police operations in Schaerbeek following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 25, 2016.
Masked Belgian police takes part in police operations in Schaerbeek following Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 25, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“It’s not nice to say, but the initial reaction to the attack at the airport among some of the people around us was how buses could be arranged to get home to Italy for Easter,” an Italian member of the European Parliament acknowledged. The simultaneous attacks last Tuesday at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city center near the offices of the European Union undermined the security of members of that closed community of bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians, lobbyists and journalists working at the European institutions and other international organizations, at NGOs and in the media associated with the EU.

The explosion inside the Maelbeek metro station was so powerful that smoke emerged from an adjacent station named after Robert Schuman, the French diplomat who is considered one of the founders of the European community that emerged following World War II and was initially called the European Coal and Steel Community. The sight of the smoke caused some believers in the European vision to recall of Schuman, who said that cooperation among European countries in the creation of these resources would make war between member states impossible. A veteran diplomat in the EU foreign service said she had the feeling that the attack was aimed directly at the European Union.

Rescue teams evacuate wounded people outside the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels on March 22, 2016 after a blast at this station located near the EU institutions.Credit: AFP

It’s not clear at this stage if the members of ISIS who planned and carried out the attacks intended to specifically hit EU institutions, but many of the 31 people killed and 300 or so injured in the two attacks were EU employees on the way to work, or were already rushing to grab a flight to leave for an early Easter vacation.

“We live here,” said an adviser at the European Commission. “Some of us have been here for 10 or 20 years, but we don’t really connect with Belgian society or with the city of Brussels. We live in our own bubble community, a Eurobubble. We live in the same neighborhoods, drink and entertain ourselves,” she said, meaning with other EU expats, “sleep with one another, marry one another, but what happened on Tuesday burst our secure bubble, and maybe for the first time we are really starting to understand here that there are consequences to our work in the real world.”

The ISIS attacks in Brussels touch on some of the most sensitive subjects that the heads of the EU deal with: the difficulty of an aging Europe to integrate a Muslim population; the flow of refugees that is washing over the continent, primarily from Syria, but also from other splintered countries in Asia and Africa; and the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq that gave rise to ISIS.

The EU, which for more than six decades has excelled in encouraging trade relations and presided over an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in European history, is not managing at the moment to get its member states to agree on a uniform immigration policy or on arrangements regarding borders, security and intelligence cooperation to deal with the threat from ISIS.

Police control the access to the central train station following bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016.Credit: Reuters

And actually, it is precisely at this time, when Europe needs stepped-up joint action on these issues, that voices are growing from within European nations to reintroduce internal borders and even an exit from the EU. The flagship project of the EU, the Schengen Agreement, which has made free movement possible between countries without passports or border checks, is now in danger – along with the idea at the foundation of everything that the legions of bureaucrats in Brussels work on.

“The attacks on Tuesday were the third blow in a row,” said a European Commission political adviser. “It started in May 2014 when extremist parties and euroskeptics won a large number of seats in the European parliament. Since then, every agreement that requires approval there is stuck for many months with parliament members essentially objecting to the entire European idea, using every tactic to create obstacles.

“The second blow was the attacks in Paris four months ago, which, even though they didn’t happen here, were in a place that is dear to all of us and inflicted harm on young people from all over the world who were enjoying themselves in the 11th Arrondissement, people like us. And now it was our turn.”

The Brussels attacks, which came a matter of days after the not-so-simple agreement between the EU and Turkey that is meant to stop the arrival of Syrian refugees via the Aegean Sea, showed how hard it is to deal with such challenges in diplomatic agreements of the kind that they so love in Brussels. Whether they are spending Easter in Brussels or back in any other of the 28 EU member countries, the residents of the pan-European bubble that is Brussels will be asking themselves tough questions over their vacation.

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