BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium acknowledged Thursday that its major rail gateway, the Brussels Midi Station, has become a festering sore of drug abuse, poverty and violence that is a major stain on a nation preparing to take on the presidency of the European Union.
The government vowed to tackle the problem, but some critics say action is coming way too late, while others say that any cleanup operation will only push the big-city problems to other neighborhoods.
Belgium, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, with a major tourism industry, has neglected the once-stately Midi Station for decades. It has become a symbol of dysfunctional government as increasingly many of the 160,000 daily commuters and tourists no longer fully feel safe.
The increasing spread of crack cocaine and open dealing and use of drugs in the neighborhood over the past year have exacerbated an already bad situation to the point that petty theft, fights and harassment of tourists have become everyday headline news in the nation of 11.5 million.
Belgium takes on the presidency of the 27-nation EU in January for six months. Governments who hold the presidency typically use the opportunity to bask in the global attention to promote their nation.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a news conference Thursday that he felt he had to take action and no longer leave security at such a key time to a warren of local authorities who had proven they were not up to the task.
“The challenge is one of security that we owe to everyone passing through Brussels. It is about the livable conditions in the neighborhood, and of course, it is about the image of Brussels and the image of our nation,” he said Thursday.
As an immediate measure, it was announced that a special police station will be set up at the existing station at the train station to make interventions easier.
But far more fundamental issues are at stake, said historian, former politician and Brussels pundit Luckas Vander Taelen.
“Nobody has done anything for years. So this problem gets always worse. And that’s what happens today — everybody seems concerned. But I wonder what is going to change here," he said.
Vander Taelen blamed Belgium's Byzantine political structure of overlapping local, regional and national authorities who he said all too often blame each other instead of actually doing something in unison.
“There are too many levels of power in Brussels and that paralyzes everything,” he said.
As criticism mounted, police organized highly publicized raids through the massive railway station, picking up and detaining several people while a cleaning team did away with much of the muck and dirt. Those are only stop-gap solutions though, said Ariane Dierickx of the l'Ilot aid group, which provides services for the homeless and needy.
“It was shocking to see that all these people that have been rejected by society are being picked up by police vans while they are not criminals,” she said. “It shows how inadequate the response is.” Dierickx said it would only move the problem to other areas.
Belgium's image is being soiled in other places too, De Croo's critics say, since problems at the Nord Station, another major train hub in the capital, haven't been much better.
One of the major issues has been the rise of drug trafficking and its accompanying violence in Belgium. The northern port of Antwerp has turned into a main gateway for Latin American cocaine cartels into the continent and cocaine seizures there have more than doubled in the past half decade, according to customs officials.
Because of that, relatively inexpensive cocaine has boomed in Brussels and crack cocaine has become a massive security issue, especially around the Midi station.