UKIP under fire for blaming Brussels attacks on ‘lax’ Schengen border system

A UKIP billboard calling on Britons to refuse "mass immigration" in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. [Ian Burt/Flickr]

Shortly after two explosions were confirmed at the Zaventem Airport in Brussels, the British far-right party UKIP used the incident to send a press release blaming the attacks on the Schengen passport-free travel zone and “lax border controls” in Europe.

According to the party’s spokesperson on Defence, Mike Hookem, who followed the events from his office in the Belgian capital, “the act of terrorism shows that Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security.”

Brussels was rocked by a string of explosions Tuesday morning (22 March) at the city’s main airport and at the Maalbeek metro station which is located close to some of the EU institution buildings, killing at least 21 people.

Belgium’s Federal Prosecutor called the attacks “coordinated” and indicated that the first attack at Zaventem Airport was carried out by a suicide bomber.

The UKIP spokesperson highlighted that the head of Europol last month warned that 5,000 jihadists were at large in the EU, having slipped in from Syria and that 94 jihadists were currently living in the impoverished Brussels quarter of Molenbeek.

“This fact alone should alert people to the fact that open borders are putting the lives of European citizens at risk,” Mike Hookem argued.

UKIP is currently campaigning for British voters to vote ‘No’ in the UK’s referendum on continued EU membership, schedule on 23 June. The party has previously argued that the open-border Schengen Agreement “puts us at the mercy of people traffickers and terrorist groups.”

Broad condemnation

At the Commission’s midday press briefing today, EURACTIV asked whether Schengen rules played a part in facilitating the Brussels attacks, like UKIP claimed.

“It’s too early, hours after the attacks, to engage in these sort of issues. Others who did that very quickly may feel free and compelled to do it. The Commission will certainly not follow,” Margaritis Schinas, the Commission’s chief spokesperson answered.

The blasts come only days after Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, was arrested in the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. French police suspect Abdeslam of being one of the men who carried out terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, which killed more than 120 people.

UKIP’s press release attracted strong criticism on Twitter, with Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the think tank European Policy Centre, calling it “unsurprising but disgusting”.

“Anti-refugee populists already trying to make political capital with the Brussels attacks,” Zuleeg said.

Others at UKIP issued more politically correct statements. Paul Nuttall, a UKIP Member of the European Parliament, tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those affected.”

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