It is time for Europe to get a grip.
This week fundamentalist Islamic terrorists blasted the heart of Europe with suicide bomb attacks in Brussels that left over 30 people dead and hundreds wounded. In a deeply symbolic gesture they hit the center of European power, even targeting the Maelbeck subway stop outside the European Union Headquarters.
The attacks put into sharp focus Europe’s failure politically. The 28-nation group that started as an economic union has been unable to create an effective political entity. Now it is time for the EU to do that or allow the terrorist attacks at its heart become the catalyst that tears it to pieces.
In the past few years it has become clear that there are no official “European borders” monitored by an adequate “European police force”. It became brutally apparent this week that there is no effective Europe-wide intelligence and police cooperation, and it has been apparent for a few years now that Europe cannot come up with an effective policy for facing the onrush of migrants and refugees flowing in from Africa and the Middle East.
For a few years now some Europeans have been retreating into the safety of their nation-states, grasping on to what remains of their ethnic fiefdoms, hoping to somehow protect their historic identity. Nationalist movements from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France to Matteo Salvini’s Northern League Movement in Italy have been promoting the end of Europe and, even worse, the British will vote in June on a referendum on whether to pull out altogether.
Great Britain, a former empire, the nation of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill is shying away from a role in the creation of a politically strong Europe. Instead the British are talking about a “Brexit”, a British exit from the EU, pulling back like a snail into the questionable safety of its shell. The safety of the shell is “questionable” because the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels came from an enemy within. That could just as easily happen in Britain.
The first step for Europe to get a grip is to stop going to pieces and start acting. Just over a week ago when European leaders met in Brussels to iron out a deal with Turkey on migrants, a photo of their banquet was circulating on Facebook. This, while over 10,000 migrants were stuck in a filthy sprawling camp in Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonia border, scrambling for an egg or some bread as aid workers threw food from the back of trucks. The contrast left the impression of well-fed, fat cat, clawless European leaders and bureaucrats unable to even scratch the surface of the migrant crisis.
The deal they came up with showed just that. To sum it up rather brusquely it is a deal paying Turkey a lot of money to take back the “huddled masses” of migrants. Of course Europe is eager to be nice to Turkey when it comes to taking back migrants that Europe doesn’t want. However, last June when Turkey arrested a Belgian citizen named Ibrahim El Bakraoui as he was trying to enter Syria and warned Belgium he was a suspected terrorist, the Turks warning was ignored. El Bakraoui was eventually deported and put on a flight to Amsterdam last July. He went on to become one of the two suicide bombers who blew himself up at the Brussels airport this week.
I think European governments will be more inclined to listen to Turkey’s warnings in the future. But Europe also needs to start recognizing the importance of Turkey for Europe’s future. The bottom line is Europe needs Turkey. As much as Europeans might have legitimate concerns over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies, it is critical to have a country as important and powerful as Turkey on its side. Europe can work with forces within Turkey, from NGOs to journalists and human rights activists, to push for democratic change and human rights, but cutting Turkey off from entry into Europe has been damaging.
So where does Europe need to start getting a grip? Answer: First, on its borders. From Lampedusa the Italian island closer to Africa than to Europe (see blog post “Lampedusa –Europe’s Port”) to the Greek Islands of Lesbos, Kos and Samos (all a short boat ride from Turkey) to the Spanish territory of Melilla in North Africa – Europe needs to have a recognizable border with controls handled by a unified European police force and border control.
This is not a proposal for a Trump-style wall to block migrants. Europe needs a common border control system. Europe has a common currency, why not an effective common police force instead of a de-clawed Europol or Frontex?
We saw this week how lack of coordination between French and Belgian intelligence services led to terror cells slipping between cracks in Europe. Instead of national intelligence services fiercely guarding their information, they need to work together to deter the common enemy.
The second place where Europe needs to get a grip is on the camps for migrants once they are inside European territory. According to the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of March 25th, 2016, 164,255 migrants have arrived in Europe this year by sea, 528 are dead or missing. Tens of thousands are living in camps and shelters across Europe.
We have all seen enough horrible scenes of migrants living in conditions ripe for disease with families out in the cold living in tents in the mud and rain. Just this week both the UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders have complained about the degenerating conditions in the migrant camps in Greece. Why can’t Europe build proper camps for these people?
Third, European leaders need to loosen their grips on their forks at their endless summit dinners and get a grip on the communities such as Molenbeck in Belgium or Seine-Saint-Denis in France where Islamic extremism has festered and grown. These communities have been allowed to become ghettoes with little integration into European societies. Getting a grip does not mean police control. It means engaging the Muslim populations. It means reaching out to the women. How many women end up becoming suicide bombers? Not many. It is fundamental to make sure Muslim women learn the local language, and that all children get into strong public schools and learn important European civic values such as freedom of expression, democracy and equality. Instead of leaving Muslim communities disenfranchised, poor and abandoned, perfect breeding ground for radicalism, Europe needs to reach out to them offering them a better alternative to extremism.
I have spoken to many migrants who land on the shores of Europe and have great hopes and dreams of a better future. Standing on the docks in ports in Sicily they have told me of their plans to find jobs and a decent life they did not have in the home they left behind. Smashing those hopes and dreams by cutting migrants off leads to desperation and extremism.
On Holy Thursday, just three days after the attacks in Brussels, Pope Francis did something that took courage, determination and humility. He went to a refugee center on the outskirts of Rome and got down on his knees and washed the feet of 12 refugees including three Muslim men from Syria, Pakistan and Mali, a Hindu man from India, and three Eritrean Coptic Christian women and one Italian Catholic woman.
Before washing their feet the Pope spoke directly about the attacks in Brussels saying:
“All of us, together – Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Coptics, Evangelicals are brothers, …who want to live together in peace, integrated…”
Then he brought up the attacks in Brussels saying, “Three days ago, a gesture of war, of destruction, in a city of Europe, a gesture by people who do not want to live in peace, who want war, not brotherhood.”
He concluded, “We are diverse, we are different we have different cultures and religions but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.”
I think he has the right idea.
Muslim communities should not be marginalized, they need to be integrated. The communities need to be included not excluded. Europe needs to make a huge effort to engage the moderates in the community and get their help in isolating and eliminating extremism.
Finally, what does Europe need to get a grip – Europe needs to harness the anger, fears and frustration over these terror attacks and direct it not at Muslims but at the lack of leadership and determination in Europe. Europe needs to find strong, courageous leaders who can get a grip and create in Europe an effective political union capable of offering effective solutions to crises from migrants to terrorism instead of covering the continent with band-aids.