Terror Impact Threatens Cameron EU Pitch, Merkel's Open Door

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How Has Europe Responded to Brussels Attacks?
  • UKIP uses Brussels killings to argue U.K. is safer outside EU
  • Pressure raised on Europe's passport-free Schengen zone

If David Cameron and Angela Merkel thought they had earned a moment’s respite from their woes, the murderous attacks in Brussels only deepened their political turmoil.

The bombings at the heart of the European Union that killed at least 31 people were seized upon by proponents of Britain leaving the bloc to argue that EU membership puts the U.K. more at risk, rather than making it safer as the prime minister asserts. In Germany, an insurgent party that benefited from opposition to Chancellor Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees immediately warned of the threat of “political Islam.”

Angela Merkel speaks to the media on March 22.
Angela Merkel speaks to the media on March 22.
Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

The Brussels attacks may increase xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiment across the EU, which has already been rising in light of the refugee crisis, said Mujtaba Rahman, director of European analysis at the Eurasia Group in London. That has implications both for the survival of the passport-free Schengen area championed by Merkel and the outcome of the U.K.’s in-out referendum on the EU in June, he said.

The blasts are a “nail in Schengen’s coffin,” and create the perception among the public that EU leaders are “not in control,” Rahman said in a Bloomberg Radio interview. Outside the Schengen zone in Britain, “Cameron has argued that the U.K. will be safer in the EU, but these events will make that narrative harder to sell.” 

The Sun newspaper picked up the baton Wednesday, referring to comments Cameron made in an interview that Europe helps make Britain safer. “How hollow that sounds today after the atrocities in the heart of Brussels,” it said in a op-ed.

Cameron will address Parliament on the attacks later on Wednesday, his office said.

‘Lax’ Controls

Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the explosions, four days after Belgian authorities seized the chief suspect in the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people in November. Those assaults were carried out by French and Belgian nationals at least some of whom who had joined Islamic State in Syria, and made their way back to Europe along routes used by Syrian refugees.

The U.K. Independence Party’s defense spokesman, Mike Hookem, issued a statement saying the “horrific act of terrorism” in Brussels showed that EU free-movement rules and “lax border controls” are “a threat to our security.” UKIP campaigns for Britain to leave the EU, so-called Brexit.

Cameron, who on Monday had moved to heal rifts within his Conservative Party, shot back in televised comments that “it’s not appropriate at this time to make any of those sorts of remarks.” Yet even members of his own party used the attacks to argue for a Brexit.

“Being in the EU means we don’t have control of our own systems, we don’t have control over our own borders,” said Andrew Rosindell, a Conservative member of parliament. “We are effectively tied to countries which I think are not as good at protecting their people as we have been.”

Creating Divide

Security forces will focus on uncovering the network that bred the attacks, but failure to do so “would raise the risk of further such attacks in continental Western Europe in the coming weeks and months,” IHS Country Risk analyst Lora Chakarova and head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre Matthew Henman said in an e-mail. They said among Islamic State objectives are “creating a divide between European states and their Muslim minorities.”

People light candles at the Place de la Bourse on March 22.
People light candles at the Place de la Bourse on March 22.
Photographer: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

In Germany, Merkel’s personal and party approval ratings have stabilized in recent weeks after declining on the back of her policy of welcoming Syrian refugees. And while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party scored record gains in regional elections this month, a poll on Tuesday suggested support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union had risen after an EU accord with Turkey aimed at controling the flow of migrants.

“Brussels reminds us: The perpetrators are the enemies of all of the values that Europe stands for today and which we uphold together as members of the European Union,” the chancellor said in Berlin, hours after President Barack Obama and other leaders had responded to the attacks. “Our unity is our strength, and that is how our free societies will prove stronger than terrorism.”

The idea of European openness was undermined by Beatrix Storch, a European Parliament member for Alternative for Germany, who wrote on her Facebook page that “we have a problem in Europe, an imported problem.”

“The goal is to strike at and destroy our way of life, our culture,” Storch said. “Let’s remember that we have our own culture, one that bonds Germans with Germans and Europeans with Europeans. It’s been submerged by all the babble about multiculturalism.”

Elmar Brok, a member of Merkel’s CDU who chairs the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament, rejected the idea that abolishing Schengen would stop such attacks.

“This is a global war on Islamic State and its bases in Syria and Iraq, and not about closing the border between Germany and Austria,” he said on N24 Wednesday.

Le Pen

Political use of the attacks wasn’t limited to Britain and Germany. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen called in a statement for a “vast police operation to occupy neighborhoods on the fringes of the Republic to seize all the weapons and explosives that are there.” While no polls have her winning the top office, surveys show Le Pen as the candidate who could take the most votes in the first round of next year’s French presidential elections. “Laxity has lasted too long,” she said.

The upshot for investors is that “EU geopolitical risk is growing,” said Lena Komileva, founder and chief economist of London-based research company G Plus Economics Ltd. The “tragedy for European civilization that the Brussels attacks should be seen as collateral for Brexiters and those wanting an EU breakup and the return of illiberal nationalism, from France to Germany to the U.K.”

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