Thursday 29 September 2016

Terrorist atrocities could help push Britain out of the EU

Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30

People gather at a makeshift memorial to victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Getty
People gather at a makeshift memorial to victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Getty

They are not all "Eurocrats" and they rarely eat sprouts.

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These were among the earliest of so very many lessons I learned over a decade living extremely happily in the EU capital. Brussels hides its many delights which makes them so worth making the effort to unearth.

Randomly, you would have to work hard and/or be inordinately unlucky to find a bad restaurant meal. You can hear the best of jazz and blues at a variety of venues most nights of the week. It has the highest ratio of trees per inhabitant among key European cities, and a network of interlinked forest walks are a short tram ride away from the centre.

The mind-boggling variety of beers is such that even someone convinced they dislike beer can find a tipple to their taste. For a variety of reasons, it is home to the most eclectic assortment of people from every corner of the world.

But the local Bruxellois are far from being as stand-offish as it first appears. Their love of fun is best epitomised by the widely-known question and answer which is almost a city motto: "Tu veux une biere?" "Non . . .peut etre." [You want a beer? No . . . maybe.] Their many cafes are often fun places to be and you don't have to go to bed early. The streets of Brussels were safer and more welcoming than those of Dublin when I first walked them in summer 1989. Maybe it was luck, but over a decade I was never a direct victim of even the most minor crime.

I was, however, aware of growing tensions with a large ethnic Moroccan population. Street crime did grow and disillusioned young ethnic Belgian/Moroccans were often involved.

This is a complex, multi-faceted problem which the authorities are trying to address. But it is clear that many of these "jihadi extremists" are also Belgian citizens. A very sophisticated EU-wide response is urgently required. So, these explosions have huge immediate implications for the European Union and all its 28 member governments, including Ireland. They add to an increasing fear that the EU's leaders do not have even minimal control over this growing threat.

These attacks fuel increasing xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiment in the European Union, already in large part fuelled by Europe's continuing refugee crisis.

This anti-foreigner sentiment has already benefited extremist right wing parties. Just last week we saw gains for the AfD in regional German elections and reverses for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In France we have seen the continued rise of Marine Le Pen's Front National. And just this week we heard her extraordinary and bogus claim that, if her party was in power, it would have prevented the Paris terror attacks.

So, alongside the battle against terrorism, which must be intensified, and be above all intelligence-led, there must be efforts to stop extreme politicians conflating terrorism with migration.

The big risk is that more pressure will come upon Brussels and the EU governments, which in turn risks limiting their scope for action to address Europe's many crises. Strains on the passport-free Schengen travel zone, which has always excluded Ireland due to British objections and these two islands' common travel area, will also increase.

Above all, these latest atrocities, happened just a 40-minute plane ride from London. They make it harder for British Prime Minister David Cameron to sustain arguments that Britain is safer in the EU. It may increase the risk of "out" vote in their membership referendum on June 23. That would have huge consequences for Ireland.

These atrocities at Zaventem Airport and Maalbeek Metro Station will reverberate far and wide. But we must retain solidarity with the Belgian people, the thousands of Irish, and people of every other race, who inhabit this still beautiful and still gentle city.

John Downing reported from Brussels for the Irish Independent from 1989 to 1999.

Irish Independent

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