It may be too early to draw conclusions about how the Brussels attacks were organised by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but it is more than obvious that they were highly coordinated.
Despite the recent arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the group managed to strike at the heart of the European Union. The multiple bombings against soft, but high-profile targets in the Belgian capital indicate a level of organisation and sophistication that clearly took the Belgian authorities by surprise.
The tragic events will inevitably raise questions about interstate intelligence cooperation and border controls, the EU’s refugee policy, and eventually the whole project of European integration.
Not the first, but different
Tuesday’s bombings came to confirm what many Europeans suspected after the November 2015 Paris attacks. The EU has failed dramatically to protect its citizens from terrorism. Many European countries dealt with terrorism before, although not always effectively.
However, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Basque ETA, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the Italian Red Brigades and the Belgian Communist Combatant Cells had either limited capabilities or avoided, most of the times, the intentional targeting of civilians.
Now European governments face a new type of terrorism which seeks to inflict massive casualties on the population for two main reasons: First, the European public opinion has been identified as the Clausewitzian “Centre of Gravity”, namely the source of strength and legitimacy for governments in Europe.
The actions of ISIL, also known as ISIS, aim at the repetition of the “Spanish scenario”, that is, the electoral defeat of politicians who favour military action against militants – like it happened with former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar following the 2004 Madrid bombings.
It is useful to remember that the rise of bigotry and xenophobia is a complex phenomenon that requires amulti-level response that cannot come only from political elites.
If this never happens and there is more European military involvement in the Middle East, then a clash of civilisation between the West and Islam could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By targeting civilians, ISIL also hopes to spark a racist backlash against Europe’s Muslim communities and thus gain more recruits. It is essentially a win-win situation for the group and there are no easy solutions to that.
A future for the EU?
But the Brussels attacks are bound to have an impact on Europe’s political future as well. The recent successes of the anti-refugee party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in the German regional elections have only proved that Europe is facing a crisis of confidence that may lead to a new era of intolerance and nationalism.
The AfD is one out of several far-right parties grabbing votes. The Finns Party scored 17 percent in the Finnish parliamentary elections in April 2015. Two months later, the Danish People’s Party won 21 percent of the votes in the Danish parliamentary elections.
Last September the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn gained 7 percent in the Greek parliamentary elections, an unprecedentedly high percentage of votes for a county that suffered so much during the World War II.
But this is not all. Far-right groups such as the German Pegida have become increasingly visible in public life, while attacks against immigrants and refugees have taken place in many European cities. In short, the far-right has come out of the political closet.
The combination of economic stagnation, intense refugee flows, and jihadi terrorism could become a game-changer for European domestic politics. The far-right will exploit the events in Brussels to gain more power through elections.
It is useful to remember that the rise of bigotry and xenophobia is a complex phenomenon that requires a multi-level response that cannot come only from political elites. The civil society, the media, the Christian churches and the business community should come together to defend tolerance and openness.
To make matters worse, the European far-right will not be the only beneficiary from the Brussels attacks, and that it could even influence the debate about Brexit. 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 attacks in Belgium will give political ammunition to the “Vote Leave” campaign, which includes Conservative Eurosceptics, Nigel Farage’s populist UK Independence Party, the radical left, and other anti-EU forces.
And a Brexit could 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.
In short, the Brussels attacks could soon trigger off a chain reaction with unknown political consequences for the future of Europe.
Under these circumstances, what is needed is an honest and fair debate about European integration, immigration and internal security.
An EU closed to itself will inevitably face decline, but the time has come for more collaboration and less give-and-take among the member states.
Emmanuel Karagiannis is a senior lecturer at King’s College London.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.