The evening after the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Brussels that claimed over thirty lives and wounded hundreds, the bruised city was back on its feet.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was joined by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the Bourse in downtown Brussels, where citizens gathered, left flowers, candles, and messages of solidarity to honour the victims of the attacks, and echo to the world the empowering message:
“These events have affected us, but they have not made us afraid.”
These words, spoken by Juncker that very night, echoed the strength and resilience of the Belgian and European citizens.
Intelligence on the terrorist attacks suggests that the train on which the explosion occurred just after having left the Maelbeek station had actually been intended for the Arts-Loi station, which serves as a junction for four lines. Such an event would have crippled the public transport system.
Most importantly, this intelligence leads to the conclusion that the attack in Brussels targeted Belgium, and not the European Union or its institutions. Yet the response to these local attacks has not been national, but collective; it has been European.
The very next day after the attacks, at noon, the nation went silent. The minute of silence in Belgium was the grandest expression of togetherness that echoed louder than any bomb. At the historic Berlaymont building, which serves as the headquarters of the European Commission, the silence was deafening. For this was the location that Belgium’s leaders chose.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stood in the center, with King Philippe of the Belgians on his right, and Queen Mathilde on his left. On the Queen’s left stood Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, and on the King’s right stood the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Together, they stood in front of all the European Commissioners to observe the minute of silence.
The Berlaymont is Juncker’s house, but his symbolic positioning is not to be taken lightly. As it was made clear in the immediate statement of the 28 EU Heads of State and the leaders of the EU Institutions after the attacks:
“Our common European institutions are hosted in Brussels, thanks to the generosity of the government of Belgium and the Belgian people.”
It took those brief 60 seconds of silence, flanked by the Belgian royals, and Belgian and French Prime Ministers, for Jean-Claude Juncker to outgrow the Berlaymont, and become the President of the European Union.
In an interview to Le Soir, Juncker said that this moment was not symbolic. That it came from the heart. This truth, makes the symbolism ever more powerful. Juncker’s anointment came not from political compromise around a hardwood table at a European Council, but from the bleeding hearts of Europeans that demanded it.
To overcome a migration crisis, Europe needs someone who can get the member states to agree, and follow through with commitments – a hard united front that works as one. But to overcome the untameable threat of terrorism, Europe needs something more: a leader to rally around; a leader to be the long lost symbol of unity, trust, and hope.
Much like after the Paris attacks in November, Belgium’s minute of silence was European. Let us hope that the symbolism behind Juncker’s newfound Presidential image lasts longer than that day. Let us, as Europeans, ask that it is further strengthened by Europe’s heads of state and government.
To echo the message of European Commission Vice-President, Kristalina Georgieva:
“We will live, we will love, we will work, we will play. And we will continue to be open and tolerant, understanding that religious extremists do not speak for an entire religion. “
Only in this way can we defeat terrorism, and overcome any crises that are thrown our way.
Dear President Juncker, we ask of you, to live up to the challenge of being the leader that the European Union has needed since the last bomb of the second world war exploded.