So far, Europe has been sleepwalking through the second decade of the 21st Century. At the beginning of the new century the European Union was infused with unbridled optimism and hope. The Cold War was over, US influence in European matters was diminishing and the continent looked to be rallying around a common currency and EU leadership. The feeling that European unity was close at hand permeated European political and economic attitudes and deeds.
Now in 2016, the goal of European unity is nothing more than a pipe dream; elusive and unattainable in the face of the challenges besieging the EU. A sovereign debt crisis, a refugee crisis, the resurgence of Russia, and terrorism have combined to produce a nightmare scenario. The EU has failed to contend with any of these challenges effectively and as a result, the picture facing the continent is a bleak one.
The Brussels attacks have made it clear that the consequences of irresoluteness are here. Six years of EU paralysis and indecisiveness have brought about a perfect storm of sorts. ISIS has Europe in its crosshairs at a time when hundreds of thousands of Syrian and North African refugees are flooding the continent. Opposition to the immigration has been steadily rising, especially in Germany where voters made their feelings known about Merkel’s refugee policies in the most recent elections. Now, with another terrorist attack on European soil, the plight of the Syrian refugees will become even less significant to European politicians. Europe cannot be secure while opening its borders to hundreds of thousands of Syrians and North Africans.
With regards to terrorism, Europe has to use its economic and military resources to defeat ISIS. Before it can do this, however, EU members need to develop the political will for what promises to be a sustained campaign. Up to the present day, European military efforts against ISIS in Syria and Iraq have been uncoordinated and minimal. France and England have mirrored the ‘light footprint’ approach of the United States. While the strikes against ISIS targets in the Middle East have netted results, there are already ISIS cells active in Europe and those cells are spreading death and destruction. These cells, as well as the circumstances that brought them to European soil, must be dealt with by a united, determined Europe Union instead of by individual member-states.
Belgium is at the forefront of European efforts against terrorism both at home and abroad. It has long been a hotbed of Jihadist activity. The country is strategically located between Germany and France. In two hours one can cross Belgium by car and its outside borders are open. The value of its location was made clear by the Paris attacks in November. It has a small security apparatus to defend against terror attacks despite the fact that Brussels is home to the EU headquarters, NATO headquarters and hundreds of international agencies and companies. Belgium is also home to a large Muslim population, making it easy for terror cells to remain anonymous as they prepare to strike.
This week’s attacks in Brussels are at least partly retribution for Belgium’s involvement in apprehending Salah Abdeslam. ISIS is perhaps hoping for an aftermath similar to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The attacks occurred during an election cycle and popular opinion in Spain was that the bombings were in response to Spain’s involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The incumbent party was removed from power and replaced by the Socialist Party which removed Spanish troops from Iraq shortly thereafter. A similar outcome is unlikely in Belgium, though. The government in Brussels has admitted it could have done more to prevent suicide bombings. Changes in the security apparatus are coming. French and Belgian police are conducting raids in Paris and Brussels.
Will it be enough to prevent any terrorist attacks planned for the near future? Or is this a matter of too little, too late?