Brussels attacks: Strike at EU fuels defensive reflex

Popular opinion wrestles with difference between refugees and terrorists, writes Derek Scally


Last Friday, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU-Turkey refugee deal struck in Brussels would allow Europe “get through this difficult test” posed by the migration crisis.

Four days later, the Islamic State attacks at the heart of the EU have made those words redundant and raised the stakes for another round of the emotional “fortress Europe” debate.

Above all, it ratchets up pressure on the woman at the heart of this debate – Merkel – days after she brokered what she hoped was a solution to the EU’s migration crisis of historic proportions.

Yesterday afternoon, an ashen-faced Merkel appeared before cameras in Berlin to condemn the bombers as “enemies of all values for which Europe stands”.

“These are values we stand for in particular on days like today: values of freedom, democracy, peaceful co-existence of our confident citizens,” she said. “Our strength lies in our unity and thus our free societies will prove stronger than terrorism.”

Undeniable threat

The most powerful politician in Europe was telling her people that, when it comes to writing the EU’s next chapter, all bets are off.

Among EU observers yesterday, shock at the Brussels attacks soon yielded to gloomy agreement that they would only increase the defensive reflex among uncertain European citizens.

Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January last year, triggering this reflex for their own political gain has been the priority of Europe’s growing network of populist parties – from France’s Front National to Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Yesterday’s attacks – with their proximity to last week’s fragile, and divisive, migration deal with Turkey – makes it even easier for these migration critics to blame the political mainstream for opening the continent to terrorist attacks.

In the fortress Europe debate, Europe’s rattled political establishment is already on the back foot, struggling to point out that the Islamic State attackers are not Syrian refugees, but those from whom Syrian refugees are fleeing.

“Unfortunately I think this will probably strengthen those who call for a fortress Europe, against the backdrop of the current refugee crisis and to the detriment of Merkel’s humane and fundamentally correct policy choices,” said Ulrike Guerot of Berlin’s European Democracy Lab.

In the seven months since Merkel pushed a wilkommenskultur or welcoming culture to those fleeing war and terror, she has stood firm in her view – amid considerable European opposition – that it is impossible to seal off a continent from those fleeing war.

But an air of realpolitik has crept into the German leader’s position in recent months, driven by domestic pressures to reduce migration numbers: from erratic Bavarian allies, her own doubtful supporters and the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which scored double-digit support in recent state elections on an anti-migration platform.

Calls for calm

“This all has nothing to do with anything,” wrote AfD MEP Beatrix von Storch, after being evacuated from the European Parliament amid sirens and army deployments.

Her Facebook post triggered online outrage, but was a direct hit on the wall that has stood firm in public discourse between the migration crisis and terrorist attacks.

For years, after several lucky escapes, German politicians and security officials have been waiting in dread for a Brussels- style attack in Germany. That dividing wall sustained severe damage after New Year attacks on young women in Cologne, with immigrant men among the perpetrators.

In Germany and elsewhere, Brussels is the next crack.

The German leader will not abandon overnight her argument that Europe cannot close itself to the rest of the world.

“But she will make sure that there are continued strong signals that Germany is very serious about contributing to European security, with all means available – including defence policy,” said Almut Möller of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Nine hours after the Brussels attacks, Merkel told Germans that Europe’s “outrage was as limitless as the determination to defeat terror”.

But as she and other European leaders ponder their response to unprecedented terrorist attacks from without, they face a growing unprecedented political challenge to find a workable strategy – from within.

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