The March 22 terrorist attacks in Brussels come as the European Union is still reeling from the November Paris attacks and scrambling to solve the migrant crisis. More important, they come as nationalist forces are challenging key principles of the Continental bloc, including the free movement of labor and the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls among several member states. The atmosphere of fear and suspicion that is sure to follow will only worsen these social, political and economic crises.
The first outcome of the Brussels attacks will be a fresh round of debate over EU border controls, in particular those in the Schengen zone. The Schengen Agreement came under fire at the start of the migrant crisis in early 2015. The Paris attacks escalated the controversy, particularly because the perpetrators moved between France and Belgium without detection. Consequently, France and other countries enhanced their border controls. The European Commission has since said that it wants all border controls in the Schengen area lifted by the end of 2016. However, the latest attacks — and the potential that more will follow — will make this difficult.
Several governments in Western Europe will likely soon announce new national security legislation, improved controls on fighters returning from conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as enhanced intelligence sharing with their neighbors. EU members will also resume discussions on how best to combat terrorism abroad in troubled nations such as Libya and Syria. Europeans will become more willing to contribute to the coalition against the Islamic State, possibly with more weapons and training for the Iraqi military and Kurdish militants, increased deployment of combat aircraft and participation in NATO surveillance missions in Turkey.
Another casualty could be the recent, tenuous agreement between Turkey and the European Union to limit the arrival of asylum seekers in Europe. Renewed awareness of the threat of terrorism among EU member states will bring focus on the bloc's external borders, possibly justifying deeper cooperation with Turkey. But the attacks could also reignite anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe and increase popular demands on EU governments not to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens — a key stipulation from Ankara for cooperation on migrant issues.
Anti-Muslim sentiment could also lead to more support for nationalist parties across the Continent. France's National Front already receives substantial support in electoral polls. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party recently achieved record performances in regional elections and is currently the country's third most popular party. Both France and Germany will hold general elections in 2017, in votes that will happen against the backdrop of the immigration crisis and the multiple terrorist attacks. In both cases, the mainstream parties will be under electoral pressure from their nationalist rivals. As a result, they will likely adopt some elements of nationalist party platforms. The same can be expected in other Northern European countries such as the Netherlands or Sweden, which also have relatively strong nationalist movements. Political parties and groups that want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union could also use the recent terrorist attacks to justify greater isolation from the Continent.
Lastly, the Brussels attacks will hurt European economies, though likely only for a short time. In the coming days, some people in Belgium and other Western European countries may decide to avoid travel or densely crowded areas, such as cafes and shopping malls, out of fear of another attack. It will temporarily stifle domestic consumption and the tourism sector. For most Europeans, the threat of terrorism is by now a part of their daily lives. Beyond national politics and economics, the long-term impacts of the attacks will affect the very fabric of the European Union.