This week’s bombings in Brussels shattered the peace, and the sense of self-confidence, in the heart of the European Union. The Islamic State militants who carried them out may yet achieve a much larger goal: speeding the breakup of the 28-country bloc that is the grandest geopolitical project since the Second World War.

Even before the massacre, the EU – based on lofty ideals about the free movement of people, money and ideas – was reeling from a seemingly endless series of body blows. There was the refugee crisis, the spectre of Britain voting to leave and the rise of parties of extreme right and left, movements united only by their anti-EU positions. All these problems were exacerbated by Tuesday’s bloodshed.

Throw in the continent’s lingering economic malaise – symbolized by shocking jobless rates in Mediterranean countries – and an institution that was lauded just four years ago with a Nobel Peace Prize for its role in maintaining stability in Europe seems at genuine risk of falling apart.

That reality is just starting to sink into the institutional, clubby atmosphere of Brussels, a world of expense accounts, black BMWs and cushy high-paying jobs. Samir Benelcaid, a Belgian radio talk-show host who broadcasts in French and Arabic, said “people in Brussels didn’t really worry about the future of the EU” even though they were involved in shaping it.

The mentality is starting to change since this week’s bombings. “My own view is that Europe is falling down,” Mr. Benelcaid said. “The EU is facing so many issues with no responses, like migration, terrorism, unemployment. They give billions and billions of euros to young people for jobs formation and there are no results.”

The questions facing the EU post-Brussels are whether the bloc is just one, or perhaps two, more blows away from shattering – and whether the threat of disintegration will persuade the EU’s leaders and citizens that their union is worth saving.

Security failures

The attacks highlighted yet another crisis for the bloc, this one institutional, by providing fresh and gruesome evidence of the inadequacies of the EU’s security and intelligence apparatuses Tuesday’s assault on the city’s airport and metro system killed at least 31 people and injured almost 300, many gravely. It came just four months after the attacks on Paris nightlife that killed another 130. It was quickly apparent this week that the perpetrators of the bloodshed in Paris and Brussels were connected – and on Friday, Belgian authorities said at least two suicide vests used in Paris were made by one of the Brussels suicide bombers. Yet an intelligence vacuum ensured that Belgian authorities were unaware until too late of the extent and intentions of the network operating right under their noses.

The scope of the failure was made plain when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that his country had deported Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, one of the suicide bombers who struck Zaventem airport, to the Netherlands last year with the warning that Mr. el-Bakraoui was a “terrorist foreign fighter.” Belgian police also knew that Mr. el-Bakraoui and his brother were associates of Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving Paris attacker, but couldn’t locate either man, even after Mr. Abdeslam’s arrest last Friday.

Turkey also deported Mr. Abdeslam’s brother to Belgium last year with a similar warning. Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up outside a Paris nightclub in November.

Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign in the wake of this week’s attacks, though Prime Minister Charles Michel has refused to accept them, saying he needs his cabinet to work together right now.

Refugees and integration

None of the 10 men involved in the Paris attacks – nor any of the three known at this point to have participated in the Brussels bombings – was a refugee. Like the three, in January, 2015, who attacked the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a kosher deli in Paris, all were born and bred in European societies.

The security challenge, then, is getting a better understanding of what’s taking place in districts like the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels and the hardscrabble banlieues of Paris. These areas are at once inside Europe’s borders, but barely a part of the societies that surround them. Police have long spoken of places like Molenbeek as no-go zones for them, and the fact Salah Abdeslam was able to take refuge for four months in Schaerbeek, another Brussels neighbourhood known forjihadi connections (some of the explosives used in the Paris attacks were prepared in a rented house in the area) highlights how poorly security services understood what was taking place in the heart of Europe.

The story keeps repeating. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, neighbours of the men who carried out the attacks – brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi – in the Parisbanlieue of Gennevilliers told The Globe and Mail that they knew the men were accumulating a stockpile of weapons, while the head of a mosque they attended said one of the brothers had loudly expressed his dislike of the French state. No one in Gennevilliers thought it wise or useful to go to the police with their suspicions.

“Inasmuch as the Daesh [Islamic State] are local actors, French and Belgians, the essential battlefield is at home. The actors are among us, they are among us, their targets are among us,” François Heisbourg, president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Ouest-France newspaper.

He said Islamic State fed off of a sense of alienation and apartness among the residents of places such as Molenbeek, and warned that measures like perpetual states of emergency – and stripping suspected terrorists of their nationality – only helped organizations such as Islamic State with its recruiting. He warned that “civil war” lay down that route.

“We must call Daesh what it is: an organization of criminal assassins. Not an army of fighters waging war. Talk of war, armies and fighting dignify Daesh members, and gives the illusion that there can be a decisive battle. We must stop behaving like [former U.S. president George W.] Bush.”

Devolving politics

In Britain, those arguing for a “Brexit” from the European Union seized on the Brussels attacks as proof that Britain was safer outside the EU. Once seen as a long-shot risk, London bookmakers now put 36-per-cent odds on Britain voting to leave the EU in a June 23 referendum, up from 29 per cent just a month ago.

The Brussels attacks “help those who want to leave the EU more than they help those who want to stay because it heightens concerns about immigrants and migrants and refugees and that whole maelstrom,” said Steve Hewitt, a history professor at the University of Birmingham. “The Brussels attacks play into a narrative in the U.K. that the EU is badly run and bureaucratic, and that staying in the EU is a risk to Britain.”

If Britain goes, the EU by definition will rupture. It would be shorn of an economy that rivals France as the EU’s second largest. It would deprive the EU of its leading liberal economic voice, the economy with the greatest growth potential, its second-strongest military force and an international financial-services centre that vies with New York as the world’s largest.

To many Europeans, the thought of the EU without Britain is unimaginable. Were it to go, the EU would be a shrunken force in every respect, and one of the consequences could be a domino effect as other countries that have developed euroskeptic tendencies, including Italy and Finland, consider their own futures in the ailing union. No one, not even the Germans – and certainly not Chancellor Angela Merkel – wants to see a rump EU that is utterly dominated by Germany, the champion of the austerity policies that are loathed in Greece, Italy and a few other southern European countries.

It’s not only Britain’s “Leave” campaign that has taken advantage of the bloodshed in Brussels. Poland’s right-wing government took just hours to announce it would stop accepting refugees in the wake of the attack, while Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Front National, called yet again for her country to take back control of its borders.

These are not shouts in the wind, but the prevailing breeze. Ms. Le Pen currently leads most opinion polls ahead of French presidential elections scheduled for early next year. Ms. Merkel – who also faces 2017 elections – has staked her career on Germany’s ability and willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of Muslim newcomers. She now faces a challenge in the worrying rise of the xenophobic Alternative for Germany party.

Meanwhile, the EU’s eastern frontier – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – is now ruled by right-wing populists opposed to any watering down of what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban calls “Europe’s Christian culture.”

All of that, Dr. Hewitt says, only contributes to Europe’s growing problems.

“The extremists on one side feed off the extremists on the other. This sort of attack plays into support for far-right parties, creating more Islamophobia, xenophobia and backlash against migrants – which plays into the hands of Islamic State. It’s a vicious circle and I don’t see it getting better.”

The end of Schengen?

One of the first things Belgian authorities did after the attacks was to shut down most transportation connections with its neighbours. France, still on high alert, dispatched an additional 1,600 soldiers and police to monitor its borders, airports and train stations. Other European nations followed suit.

These were natural steps from a security standpoint, but nonetheless major – and very symbolic – blows to the EU’s aspiration of an open and borderless society.

The three-decade-old Schengen open-borders agreement, could well be another casualty of the carnage in Paris and in Brussels. The 26-country passport-free travel area has become the scapegoat amid conflated worries about refugees, immigration and terrorism.

The Schengen zone’s future was already in doubt after last year’s influx of more than one million refugees and migrants, most of them from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Efforts to block, or at least reroute, the refugees marching north through the Balkans saw Hungary wall itself off from fellow EU member Croatia, followed by Austria fencing its border with fellow Schengen member Slovenia.

By January, even Sweden – long considered Europe’s most welcoming country to refugees – had introduced checks for the first time on the Oresund Bridge connecting it to Denmark.

Megan Greene, the chief economist at Manulife subsidiary John Hancock Asset Management, and a deft chronicler of the EU’s economic and social torments, said “these terror attacks are likely another nail in the coffin for Schengen.”

Nicholas Spiro, a partner at Lauressa Advisory, a London economic and property advisory, agrees.

“Schengen is in the process of dying; it’s politically dead already.”

Economic uncertainty

The EU has been on the precipice before. In 2012, at the height of the euro crisis, Greece was on the verge of bolting from the euro zone and reprinting its pre-euro currency, the drachma, until the European Central Bank (ECB) went into firefighting mode and kept the monetary union intact. A greater firefighting mission is required now, but who will lead it and how it will be done are open questions.

The euro zone has, at points, slipped into deflation (falling prices), prompting the ECB to introduce negative interest rates in an effort to lift prices. The largely Mediterranean countries on the “periphery” are becoming increasingly critical of the economic and refugee policies imposed on them by Brussels and Berlin. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is now leading the anti-EU charge in his country, though he is not yet advocating Italy’s withdrawal from the EU or the euro zone.

The EU’s economic woes, while intensifying, are nothing new. What is new is the number of problems the continent is having to simultaneously confront. It is one thing to have a euro crisis; it is quite another to have a euro crisis in a time of regular terrorism, mass refugee arrivals, right-wing populism and a key member contemplating leaving the bloc.

“I think the fact that euro-zone crisis is a distant memory shows that the political and economic governance – and now security governance – of the EU is in shambles,” said Mr. Spiro. “How much more evidence do you need to prove that the EU project is in disarray? It really is facing an existential crisis.”

BRUSSELS and LONDON — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Mar. 25, 2016 9:31PM EDT
Last updated Saturday, Mar. 26, 2016 4:38PM EDT