Joyce McMillan: Unexpected outpouring of feelings for Brussels

An uncharacteristic wave of unity seems to have hit Brussels in the aftermath of this week's atrocity. Picture: AP
An uncharacteristic wave of unity seems to have hit Brussels in the aftermath of this week's atrocity. Picture: AP
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TUESDAY’S tragedy in Brussels helped bring the Brexit question into new focus for occasional visitor writes Joyce McMillan

There was a time – back in the 1990s, when the EU was experiencing a wave of hope and optimism about its new post-Cold-War future – when I and other civic activists used to spend a fair amount of time in Brussels, sitting in some high glass-and-concrete office or hotel, discussing the EU’s democratic deficit, and how to bring the Union closer to its citizens.

Often, though – while the multilingual translations unfolded – I would also be looking out of the window, at what I came to know as one of the most fascinating of world cities, a messy and completely unselfconscious microcosm of all Europe’s tensions and possibilities, both past and present. The multiple layers of the city always seemed to me astonishing: from the dirty, rutted streets behind the main stations where North African boys gathered in restless crowds, up through the gorgeous medieval squares and winding streets of old Brussels, and the elegant 19th-century imperial city of grand museums and boulevards, to the gleaming, air-conditioned high-rise world of the top bureaucrats and visiting ministers. And beneath it all, too, there was the continuing story of the astonishingly entrenched division of Belgium itself, between French and Flemish speakers who somehow often contrived barely to conmmunicate at all; the king, said my Belgian friend Goedele, was the only person who had any power whatever, to bring the whole country together.

• READ MORE: Martyn McLaughlin: Brussels atrocity must not spark disproportionate security

Until now, perhaps; because when the news came, on Tuesday, of this week’s horrific attacks on Brussels’s main airport and metro, it seemed to bring with it three big waves of thought and feeling, all intertwined. The first was the usual overwhelming surge of horror, and of sympathy for the victims; accompanied by the recurring question of how wisely we will respond to this latest atrocity.

Then secondly – taking me by surprise – came a wave of feeling for Brussels itself. For this time, as they gathered in candlelit vigils, the people of Brussels were not silent, as they seemed to be during the lockdown that followed last year’s Paris attacks, but instead sounded like Parisians, determined to occupy their own streets, and not to be afraid; and uncharacteristically, they talked of unity, of being drawn together by the need to protect a Brussels way of life they have long taken for granted, but must now name, describe and fight for.

And then finally, there came the big questions about identity that haunt our responses to atrocities like those that took place this week, and are also being played out so vividly in current UK politics. For some on the “out” side of our current European referendum debate, the conclusion to be drawn from Tuesday’s events was obvious; that Europe is a badly run continent in meltdown, that its security forces and border controls are feeble at best, and that Britain had better break free, and look after itself. And for some on the “in” side, by contrast – including the Prime Minister – the opposite conclusion is equally self-evident; ever-closer co-operation is essential, they believe, in order to meet a threat that respects no borders.

Those who want stay in, in other words, strongly identify with other European nations, at least as very close neighbours facing the same problems as ourselves; and the response to last year’s atrocities in Paris, and to Tuesday’s attacks, suggests that that group is fast becoming a majority, as flags are lowered to half mast, and front pages cleared to cover the suffering of our friends just across the channel.

• READ MORE: Brussels explosions: Scots narrowly escape blast

And in the context of British politics, it’s hard not to see the first of those responses as an unkind and reactionary one, the second one as more open and enlightened. Brexit campaigners may be anxious to dismiss the peacemaking role of the EU as old hat; but in the perspective of history, the routine, bickering, but broadly friendly relationship that has been achieved among the peoples of western Europe in two short generations, after so many centuries of war, is an everyday miracle we underrate at our peril.

Yet as the great Scottish theorist of nationalism, Tom Nairn, points out, identities are never fixed, always Janus-faced, always capable of looking backwards in reaction and negativity, or forward in a spirit of liberation and greater democracy. And to a young Iraqi or Pakistani or Turkish boy or girl, our instinctively lowered flags this week must say just one thing: that the people of western Europe care about each other, but not about the hundreds being killed by Islamist extremists every month across the Muslim world; and that we would rather talk up the inflammatory suggestion that they are out to get “us”, in the west, than focus on the truth that they are killing people in Muslim majority countries at a rate that makes their attacks in western Europe look modest indeed.

And it’s between these two faces of the European Union that I will be choosing, when I cast my vote on 23 June. Given the alternative – a post-referendum UK dominated by the anti-EU Conservative right – I will probably stick with the European dream of the 1950s and 1990s, which at least provides a unique example of how nations once locked in war can become companions and friends, albeit often ill-tempered ones.

I will be under no illusions, though, about the problems and potential evils inherent in that European identity; for in the end, only fundamentalists – whether in Scotland, Europe, or the UK – see their chosen identity as inherently good, and others as inherently bad. Our cultural, national and religious identities are what we make of them, when we decide whether to use them to free and empower ordinary people, or to bully, oppress and control them. And at this moment, one thing at least should be clear to us: that fundamentalism is our enemy, as we seek to navigate the truth of this 21st century world; and that our best friend is the multi-layered complexity, the recognition of ever-changing conditions and perspectives, that seems enshrined in the very fabric of cities like Brussels, and that needs now to be loved, cherished, and sustained, as never before.