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Opinion

Opinion: Belgian charm can't make up for incompetence

Brussels has been on lockdown for several days, but nothing has come of it so far. And that is no surprise: If Belgium's authorities are known for one thing, it's incompetence, DW's Max Hofmann writes.

You have to put up with a lot in Brussels: the architectural eyesores, the permanent traffic jams, the garbage on the streets, the nonstop rain in autumn. But, then, there are umbrellas and there is the oft-cited charm that covers up a multitude of this odd and lively city's sins. The problem is, charm alone never caught any terrorists.

It's now the third day in a row that a giant "closed" sign seems to be hanging over the capital of Europe: no subways, no big events, no school. The people of Brussels have abandoned their everyday activities, preferring to stay at home - far away from their windows, of course, as per the authorities' instructions. They're hoping that the police and the military will be able to prevent a "serious and imminent attack," according to the government.

But it's a mystery to me why anyone should have faith in Belgium's authorities. Even before the district of Molenbeek became known across Europe as a haven for extremists, the police of this "charming" country were known for being arbitrary and incompetent. One of the most notorious examples of shameful failure was their botched investigation into Marc Dutroux, a barbaric pedophile whose crimes shocked all of Europe 20 years ago.

Hofmann Maximilian Kommentarbild App

Max Hofmann works at DW's studio in Brussels

Of course, everyone wishes that it weren't so. And the people of Brussels, with their legendary patience, are also prepared to give the police the benefit of the doubt. On Sunday evening, they followed a request by police not to share details of the anti-terror raids on social media. Instead, while the sirens rang out and smoke grenades flew, they posted silly cat photos under the hashtag #BrusselsLockDown on Twitter. And there it was again, that offbeat humor, the charm.

Chaotic communication

What results have the lockdown achieved? None, it seems. Numerous arrests like we saw last week. But judges will likely quickly release most of those arrested. The one man who justifies all this effort is Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspected terrorists behind the attacks in Paris. After November 13, he was reportedly seen in Molenbeek, in Liege and on the motorway leading to Germany. It seemed as though all of Belgium knew where he was, but the police couldn't catch him.

It's not so easy, what with all the bureaucracy. It's not just one or two, but rather six police agencies who oversee the 19 city districts in Brussels. And then there's the confusion of languages. Some speak French, the others speak Flemish, and, in the worst-case scenario, one officer doesn't understand the other's language. This has had devastating consequences in the past - for example during a 2001 train accident in Pecrot that left eight people dead. Because of language "barriers," station personnel in Flanders and Wallonia couldn't communicate with one another.

But back to Brussels. Authorities have known for years just what kind of sinister extremist scene has been developing, particularly in Molenbeek. But they haven't done much to stop it, except for the odd round of smoke grenades and kicking in doors. The fact that their latest mission has not produced any tangible results shouldn't just be a source of concern to the people of Brussels. The incompetence of Belgium's authorities has now become a danger for all of Europe.

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