Europe in the Crosshairs: Political Implications of Terror


After weeks of seemingly unrelenting terror attacks carried out within the European Union and elsewhere, European leaders struggle with a political balancing act of responding to asymmetric threats while offering a sense of security to their citizens without overstepping core EU values and fundamental freedoms.

The political reactions in light of this crisis have varied, characterised by both short-sighted and xenophobic populism voiced by some leaders and measured attempts to address what appears to be a long-term challenge to public safety by others. One thing is clear: public emotions are running high, and with critical elections in France (Spring 2017) and Germany (Fall 2017) fast approaching, these twin engines of Europe are struggling to fend off mounting pressure from increasingly popular far-right parties that are demanding stricter migration policies and harsher enforcement of law and order.

Given these rising tensions, European leaders must stay firm on constitutional principles and fight back against opportunistic attempts to consolidate a false nexus between refugee resettlement and countering violent extremism. Attempting to appease public anger by delivering policies derived from highly emotional reactions rather than developing a comprehensive policy grounded in facts will make Europe less safe.

In France, the latest string of attacks has galvanized critique from both the center-right opposition party, vocalized by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and the far right party Front National, led by Marine Le Pen. Despite prolonging France’s state of emergency, ordering an unprecedented number of its military and law enforcement officers to patrol the streets, and formally advocating for the formation of a new National Guard (not having been used since 1872), the increasingly unpopular President François Hollande’s policies have been heavily attacked and labeled as naive. Mr. Sarkozy recently proclaimed that “I cannot accept dealing with today’s realities by applying intellectual schemes from the past.” Sarkozy’s calls for solitary confinement of prisoners convicted of terror-related crimes, expedient deportations of convicted foreigners (regardless of how prisoners are treated in the recipient country), criminalization of behavior that indicates radicalization, and the use of controversial de-radicalization camps seem to resonate well among certain segments of the electorate. Although it remains unclear whether such harsh policies would offer an efficient response to the attacks or even be legal.

Critics of such proposals have highlighted that the current state of emergency has already considerably expanded the operational toolbox of law enforcement and that demands for constant surveillance of thousands of returned foreign fighters are simply unrealistic, given the sheer size and costs of such operations. The French government has defended its cautious position, with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who is under increasing political pressure, recently pleading to journalists gathered outside the presidential Élysée Palace that “we can’t give up the rule of law in order to protect the rule of law” and later adding that bending constitutional principles will have “consecrated the victory of the terrorists.” Such political restraint and sobering comments are necessary, especially given the lack of evidence indicating that these policies would reduce the amount of attacks or prevent people at risk from being radicalized in the first place. For example, the idea of a French Guantanamo (as proposed in heated statements by some parliamentarians) would probably trigger further animosity among the groups it seeks to deter.

In Germany, citizens and political leaders alike are still grappling with restoring calm after a violent week involving horrific attacks on civilians on a train in Würzburg, the first ever attempted suicide bombing outside a music festival in Ansbach, and what appears to be a carefully calculated mass shooting in Munich inspired by neo-fascist ideology. With fear and uncertainty emerging as an increasingly valid currency on which to capitalize, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been challenged by her conservative coalition partner, the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, where two of the latest attacks occurred. It is not surprising that the German government has unveiled a nine-point action plan to increase security in Germany, which includes early warning systems for youth at risk of being radicalized and more joint exercises and institutionalized coordination between law enforcement and military units.

Although having enhanced security measures, Chancellor Merkel has not moved away from her position regarding the need for the freedom of movement of peoples. She is determined to maintain her policy of openness, repeating her mantra—Wir schaffen das (we can do this)—while emphasizing the need to separate migration/refugee policies from counterterrorism measures, stating “we cannot let anxiety and fear advise our political decisions.” But there is a political cost to Merkel’s leadership. The new German far-right and anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), also seeks to weaken Merkel’s popularity. Recently cracking the established mosaic of German politics, the AfD scored 12–24 percent of the vote in three key states during regional elections earlier this year.

Europe’s recent terrorist events have served as an accelerant toward greater populism, nationalism, and xenophobia in many European nations. In almost all EU member states, slow economic recovery after the financial crisis combined with the optics of an increased inflow of refugees and migrants have given credence to a new generation of far-right movements, which harvest votes among large socioeconomic segments of the population and form increasingly efficient coalitions in both national parliaments and the European Parliament. In Austria’s upcoming rerun of its presidential election on October 2, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, known for his negative stance on immigration and historically troubled references to Volksgemeinschaft, a Hitler-inspired concept of a homogeneous German people’s community, has obtained a strong platform. Although the presidency is largely ceremonial and bears little influence over the country’s governmental institutions, Mr. Hofer currently leads in the polls, and his party currently holds 40 of the 183 seats in the National Council.

Somewhat similar developments of populist parties going mainstream can be observed in many of the Nordic countries, with the Finns Party growing with 14 percent since 2007 and now playing an active policy-shaping role within the ruling center-right coalition, the Danish Peoples Party grabbing 21 percent in last year’s election, and the Swedish Democrats obtaining 14 percent in the 2014 election and currently growing more popular among middle-class voters. In Central Europe, Hungary is joined by Poland and Slovakia in terms of governments ruled by Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties. In the aftermath of the Nice attack, Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, told reporters that “this is a consequence of the policy of multicultural politics and political correctness.” Other provocative and deeply xenophobic comments have been echoed by ministers and back-bench parliamentarians around the continent. In Italy and France, populist and nationalistic parties have secured more political influence in local elections. In the case of France, Marine Le Pen’s party will likely enter the second round of elections for the presidency next year.

But it may not be the fast growth of opportunistic populist parties that threaten to alter Europe’s current orientation but the weakness of centrist governments to effectively address the public’s anxiety over its safety. Recently published surveys from the Pew Research Center, as well as the European Commission’s Eurobarometer survey, indicate a significant decrease in public trust among EU citizens with regard to how they assess the capabilities of their own governments. Although struggling to contain similar trends at home, Washington must be more attentive to Europe’s rapid political transformation, which is driven by public anxiety. Attempts to circumvent constitutional liberties, arbitrary detentions that contradict the presumption of innocence, or the demonization of certain communities are evidence that the situation will likely worsen by alienating crucial stakeholders and enforce fanatic narratives used by recruiters rather than countering them.

The need for carefully crafted and multifaceted policies becomes even clearer when identifying the attackers from this month: ranging from mentally ill teenagers and quickly radicalized lone wolves to individuals labeled by the police as aspiring foreign fighters long before they carried out their deeds—some of them previously known by the police, while others had never appeared in public records before striking. The attack in Munich—involving a gunman inspired by neo-fascist ideology who deliberately launched a killing spree inside a shopping mall on the fifth anniversary of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre on the island of Utøya and attempt to blow up governmental headquarters in Oslo—serves as a crucial reminder of how the intelligence community must stay vigilant of militant extremists from all sides of the political spectrum attempting to spur divisions.

Europe must stand firm on its ability to supply credible solutions to complex problems: on the one hand delivering ambitious resettlement policies for migrants and refugees arriving on its shores to escape violence, and on the other strengthening its toolbox for dealing with counterterrorism. Failing to conduct this crucial multitasking will significantly reduce European governments and pan-European institutions’ ability to offer security to its citizens in an era when asymmetric terror is on the rise.

Carl Hvenmark Nilsson is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published by the Center for International and Strategic Studies on 18 August. It is republished with permission