I am still a little shaken by yesterday’s bomb attacks in Brussels.
I had been at the station where the second bomb went off just a few minutes before. Brussels was a very tense city yesterday after the horrors of the attacks. The streets were deserted, all public transport was shut down, helicopters were flying overhead, and official advice was to stay inside whatever building you were in. There were fears that there would be more attacks: rumours were circulating on social media that there were 15 people wearing suicide jackets walking around the streets. The rumours were untrue, but added to the sense of panic.
This morning, things are somewhat calmer — indeed, they were by late afternoon yesterday. But the mood is sad, sombre and still apprehensive. There’s a sense of dread here at the European Parliament, as the attacks struck at places used daily by many friends and colleagues. No list has yet emerged of those who were killed or injured in the attacks, and we’re all aware of the likelihood that the casualties will include people we know. Initiatives like Facebook’s new Safety Check feature — which allowed people to mark themselves or their friends as safe, triggering a reassuring notification to Facebook contacts — are a godsend in these situations, especially as the phone networks were also down for a while.
To add to yesterday’s general sense of malaise, I was appalled (as were many others) to see attempts by some anti-European politicians to use the atrocities to push their political agendas. Less than two hours after the first explosion, when the security and medical services were struggling to get a handle on the situation and most people were still in shock, the first instinct of fellow Yorkshire & Humber MEP Mike Hookem was to issue a bile-filled press release blaming the European Union, and in particular the Schengen passport-free travel zone across most of continental Europe, for the terrorists’ actions. Hookem was so keen to argue that our security was compromised by the Schengen agreement that he failed to mention we are not in fact part of it: the UK has its own border controls separate from mainland Europe (we have a separate free travel area with Ireland). Nor did he wait to check where the attackers had come from: they were in fact “home-grown” from Brussels, just as the London bombers were from Britain. Cross border movement was not a factor.
If you want to speculate before the bodies are cold and before loved ones have been notified, then at least a degree of circumspection is warranted. Leaping to blame the EU or Schengen seems particularly disingenuous when senior police officers are telling us (£) that the EU is actually one of the key tools we have to try to prevent similar atrocities, because of its security cooperation. EU arrangements for reciprocal access to fingerprints, DNA and vehicle registration are vital. Outside the EU, it takes an average of 143 days for a DNA match to be returned through the Interpol process, while under the EU’s Prüm Convention – which Britain will get access to next year unless it votes to leave — it will be 15 minutes.
No doubt this will now become one of the themes of the ongoing debate. In the immediate aftermath, out of respect for the victims, I would prefer to leave detailed argument for another day.