They say timing is everything. And an organization such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which has supplanted al Qaeda as the jihadist threat of greatest concern, was surely aware of the meaning “timing is everything” when it decided to strike yet again on European soil Tuesday, killing at least 30 people near the headquarters of the European Union.
The Brussels attacks took place at a time when Europe is deeply divided over the refugee crisis and, more important, as xenophobic and nationalist forces are challenging the principles and values of the European integration project, including the free movement of labor and the Schengen Agreement.
By striking Brussels, ISIS hopes to deepen the suspicion and fear that many European feel over migrants and put extra strain on Europe’s ability to address its economic and political crises.
So, how will Europe respond to the Brussels attacks?
The first outcome could very well be a heated debate over border controls, with the balance of power shifting towards those countries that opted to seal off their borders.
The European Union has indicated that it wants all border controls lifted by the end of 2016, but the latest terrorist attacks on European soil could postpone the decision indefinitely, thereby leading to the automatic unraveling of the European integration project.
The second outcome, following naturally from the first one, would be the further weakening of the stance adopted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel since the start of Europe’s refugee crisis. In fact, Merkel’s “open-door” refugee policy should be already regarded as a thing of the past, and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party can expect to see significant gains in the months ahead.
The third outcome could be the strengthening of the national security state throughout Europe, while European governments might be more willing to support a military campaign against ISIS in places like Iraq and Libya.
The fourth outcome could be increased Islamophobia inside Europe, a development which could jeopardize whatever realistic prospects of success are built into the reached agreement between Europe and Turkey for halting the influx of migrants to the continent.
Simply put, many European governments may re-examine the condition of extending a free-visa regime to Turkey in exchange for assistance in solving Europe’s refugee crisis.
The materialization of any of these outcomes will have significant adverse affects and outcomes on European politics and civil society. It would not be far-fetched to say that the latest terrorist attacks may mark the beginning of a new era in European politics whereby nationalism and authoritarianism emerge as the driving forces.
Even so, the country that will bear a disproportionate burden if any of the above outcomes materialize is Greece.
Nearly 50,000 refugees and migrants are already stranded in Greece since the closure of the Balkan borders, while the number of refugees entering the country since a deal was reached between EU and Turkey has gone up.
According to some estimates, the cost of Europe’s refugee crisis may climb as high as 4 billion euros this year for the Greek government. This is an exuberant sum of money for a bankrupt economy with little or no prospects of recovery in the near future.
In sum, the latest jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe have come at a time when the continent is undergoing a truly existential crisis, and, as such, the timing for the attacks was simply perfect.
With this attack, ISIS may have killed not two but several birds with one stone.
It spread fear and suspicion of migrants among European and enhanced the cause of nationalist forces eager to put an end to Europe’s cosmopolitan vision and force a return to the age of closed borders and limited free movement.
Of course, none of the above outcomes need to materialize.
Europe could respond, instead, in a calm and composed manner, but doing so should involve re-examining western policies against nations like Iraq and Libya – crimes that that have been the main source for the rise of monstrous organizations such as ISIS that now threaten Europe and the rest of the western world.
Not a likely scenario, but the only real option for averting the collapse of European integration and a possible clash of civilizations.