The March 22 Brussels tragedy is different from the Paris attack in November 2015 because this time the terrorists hit the unofficial capital of the EU. The act of terrorism is definitely an element of strategic planning, not an isolated event.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said «what we feared has happened», adding that authorities are worried there will be more attacks.
Exactly! What strikes most is the predictability of the tragedy. The Paris attacks were traced to Brussels. Since then, the European capital has been in focus of European security forces. The main suspect was arrested there. There had been a lot of warnings – nothing worked! Brussels has been struck by a retaliatory attack.
Perhaps, the Belgian security forces did what they could. Some assessments make doubt their efficiency.
And there are certain limits to what they can do.
In a broader sense, it happened because Europe had failed to realize the halcyon days were over as it faced a new kind of threat it hoped so much to prevent.
In November 2015 French President François Hollande said «We are all at war with Islamic State now».
And he was right. But a war is not just instability or intimidation, but rather the inevitability of enemy’s onslaught. Belligerents exchange strikes. One delivers a blow to repel an attack perfectly knowing there will be an attempt to hit back.
A war is an emergency that changes the established way of life introducing new priorities and rules to the game with a different system of decision making process. Casualties are unavoidable and one has to move out of the comfort zone. The values previously considered to be universal have to be reviewed. The goal to accomplish the set mission is paramount and the enemy is clearly defined.
Is the EU ready for it? Obviously not. That’s the bottom of the problem.
Any time a terror attack takes place, European leaders say the crime committed will fail to make the West refuse its values and way of life. Europe will not be tempted to go too far with restrictive measures.
It is deeply rooted inside the European mentality. Europe clings to the principles that made the Old Continent prosperous after the horrors of two self-inflicted world wars. Gradually Europe started to impose its values on others diminishing its readiness to compromise. The EU, once known for its ability to overcome snags on the way to common good, has lost flexibility. No more can it adapt to reality.
A war may shake the whole European construction where the ideology is as important as economy or politics. There are fears Europe may implode because the attacks come from within. Quite often the perpetrators are born in Europe. The traces may lead to the Middle East, but the blows are delivered inside the EU. Europe normally responds with solidarity marches and «je suis…» slogans. The calls are voiced to prevent the divisions along religious and sectarian lines. The perpetrators named and the universal evil are the enemies. Never a clearly defined social group is found guilty, because finger pointing should be accompanied by a list of measures to be taken – something Europe is not ready for. The reaction is always the same: the rules for migrants get toughened, special services are told to step up coordination, which is believed to be poor within the EU, the orders are given to crack down on ideological drivers of Islamist terrorism and step up control over information flows.
Always the same song and dance, but the established order of things is never changed.
Will it ever be different? May be yes, but not in the near future. At that some outcomes of the tragedy are already easy to predict. They are almost inevitable.
Domestic consumption and tourism sector will suffer for some time because people will shy away from travelling across Europe. Shoppers and restaurant goers will keep away from densely crowded areas with cafes and shopping malls.
Due to the large number of refugees there is a growing need to build more and more reception centers which means there will be more and more refugee camps in the countries bordering the European Union.
The growing anti-migrants sentiments, or even a probable racist backlash, may make the terrorist organizations gain more recruits in European Muslim communities.
The debates over EU border controls in the Schengen zone will be renewed. According to the European Commission, it is planned to lift them by the end of 2016. The Brussels attack will make the implementation of these plans much more difficult. The area of the Schengen zone is full of walls and barbed wire – between Hungary and Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia, Austria and Slovenia, and some countries also think about a complete closure of the borders with other countries. It should be noted that open borders are fundamentally important to the European economy. Many companies based in the region have structured their operations across borders. Now there will be an increase in transportation and labor costs simply to move goods between their assembly plants or to the consumers.
The recent EU-Turkey agreement on migrants will be in jeopardy because the attacks would reignite anti-Muslim sentiments and increase popular demands on EU governments not to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, a key stipulation envisioned by the agreement.
Some countries will likely announce new national security legislation, including enhanced intelligence sharing with other European states.
The tragedy will reinvigorate discussions on military operations in the Middle East. It would be natural for Europe to boost cooperation with Russia. It’s worth to note that after the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris Russia and France concluded an intelligence exchange agreement to improve the effectiveness of their anti-terrorist activities.
It would be propitious to remember that right after the Paris attacks, the head of the CIA said he was determined to keep conversations open between the intelligence communities of the United States and Russia and wanted to see relations between the two nations enhanced to prevent future terrorist attacks, particularly from the Islamic State group. «So we’ve been exchanging information. I think it needs to be enhanced», CIA Director John Brennan said, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. «But I am determined to continue to work with my Russian counterparts, because of the importance that I think we each can bring to this issue, in terms of our insights, our information, our data and sharing».
Last month, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos called for enhancing intelligence sharing between Russia and the EU. «We need to have cooperation with Russia, exchange information about a common enemy: terrorism», Kammenos said at a conference.
It is important because the EU is at war and needs allies, especially the ones with great experience of fighting the enemy.
Gradually, the European political pattern is going through changes. Far-right forces are getting stronger. It does not mean they are on the way to grab power (though it may happen in some states), but it makes major political parties move to the right. More important, they come as nationalist forces challenging key principles of the EU, including the free movement of labor and the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls among several member states. A significant reshaping of European political landscape is already looming with major forces shifting from center to make polarization the defining feature of European politics.
The divisions along traditional lines (left, right, conservatives, liberals, socialists etc.) will blur ceding place to the differences in views on the ways to fight the main threat.
For instance, in Germany two mainstream political parties are divided inside over the support for the Chancellor’s migration policy. Some Social Democrats and Christian Democrats support Angela Merkel while other members of the same parties oppose her. Both parties are members of the ruling coalition. Nobody comes up with clearly defined set of measures to be considered. It boosts support for PEGIDA and Alternative for Germany right-wing parties among voters. The anti-Merkel sentiments are expected to grow. Germany may become the driver of the change on the European political landscape in case a terror attack takes place there.
A major attack will make the divisions come into the open and spur the process of political revision in Germany and throughout the entire EU.
Brexit may be greatly impacted by the Brussels tragedy. Although the British government has wisely maintained control over its borders, there is widespread concern among the British public about border security in the Schengen zone and unregulated migration.
The attack strengthens the Eurosceptics – less Europe means more security, they say. The tragedy in Belgium will give political ammunition to the «vote out» campaign.
Brexit could also be the catalyst for more ethnocentrism and disintegration across the continent. It would certainly increase Marine Le Pen's chances of winning the French presidency in 2017.
No doubt the EU is on the threshold of deep changes. It’s hard to make any predictions about its future, but the best days of the European Union are behind. It will never be the same again.