Europe squeezed between security and freedoms

Europe squeezed between security and freedoms

“Go straight on the road and turn right when you see the tank,” my sister told me five years ago, giving me directions to her house in Beirut. Only in Beirut could you use a tank for a reference point, I had thought at the time.

It would be a great exaggeration today to say the same for Brussels. Yet although the heart of Europe has seen high security measures due to frequent EU and NATO summits, what the locals have experienced since Friday night is highly unusual.

“We live as if we are in Tel Aviv,” a European diplomat based in Brussels told me. 

I do not recall how many times I’ve gone to Brussels in the course of the past 25 years. I am sure it is no less than 40 times. As a journalist, I have never encountered any difficulty and did not think I’d run into any when I took the plane to Belgium last Sunday. 

Still the group with which I was traveling did have some concerns. We were advised to have the printouts of the invitation letters of the institution that had organized the panel in which we were scheduled to participate. 

Yet the officer at the passport control made us all laugh with all the jokes he made and, in stark contrast to the highest degree of alarm in Belgium, we entered the country with levity. Obviously, however, a terror organization bringing a city to a virtual stop is not a laughing matter. 

No doubt walking around heavily armed soldiers or trying to enter a hotel whose main entrance is locked, or trying to get out of a restaurant whose doors are locked is nothing I have experienced so far, either in Brussels or in any other city outside of war zones. 

“Note that the soldiers are equipped with arms that are not suitable for urban fighting,” the same diplomat told me. 

That was not the only sign showing how the heart of Europe was not prepared for “the imminent threat” the Belgian prime minister has been talking about.

Both French and Belgian television debates were focused on questions such as why Belgian authorities were still unable to find Saleh Abdelslam, who is believed to be the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, as well as why French officials questioned and released him right after the attack as he was fleeing to Belgium. Part of the debates also focused on the loopholes in the cooperation between states.

In Turkey we are very familiar with this discussion. For years Turks have blamed Europeans for falling short of cooperating against terror organization like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C).

In fact Turkey was extremely frustrated with the case of Fehriye Erdal, who was charged with killing Sabancı Holding Automotive Group Chairman Özdemir Sabancı and two of his colleagues in 1996.

Erdal was caught in Belgium with a counterfeit passport, but the Belgian government turned down Turkey’s demand to have her extradited on the grounds that Turkey still practiced capital punishment at that time.

Erdal spent one year in jail before she was placed under house arrest before she later escaped.

At that time, the general conviction in the Turkish public was that European countries that never wanted to see a strong Turkey protected terrorists. 

Yet today we see that cooperation between two neighboring countries who speak the same language and who are part of the same European family have failed to efficiently cooperate. 

A French deputy was saying in a televised debate that France talked about taking measures right after the Charlie Hebdo attacks 10 months ago. “And now we are still talking about the same things,” he said, underlying the fact that not much has been done since then.

Europeans need to take much more seriously the need to strike the balance between security and freedoms. They should not underestimate the threat of terror and hide behind the “freedoms” argument to get away with the mistake of not taking efficient measures against terrorism. After all, the right to life is a fundamental freedom as well.

Similarly they should not exaggerate the security dimension and sacrifice fundamental freedoms, like the freedom of movement or the freedom to asylum for the sake of taking measures against terrorism. 

In this framework, it is a pity that the Turkish public is probably unaware that while extending the emergency rule for three months, the French Parliament annulled the article on the emergency law dating back from the Algerian war that enabled the government to apply censorship to the press during the emergency.