As Brussels reels from an attack by Islamic State jihadists, analysts warn of a ripple effect that could further whip up populist sentiment on the continent and in the United States and push the British to vote to leave the EU.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Tuesday’s bombings in the Belgian capital have provided fodder for Donald Trump’s divisive electoral campaign while in Europe they risk hardening responses to the refugee crisis.
Analysts warn that at a time when unity is more crucial than ever, the attack could create divisions that will make it harder to tackle IS and the crises it has spawned.
“The risk is a spiral where our reaction to this very real threat makes matters worse, not better,” said Thomas Wright, an analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Centre on the United States and Europe.
So what could the fallout be from the latest IS attack?
Over one million refugees and migrants, nearly half of them Syrian, arrived in Europe last year alone, creating an unprecedented crisis that has created deep rifts between EU members over how to respond.
Public opinion was already hardening against the refugees as their numbers swelled, and news that jihadists may have used the migrant route to re-enter Europe has added to concerns.
Several EU countries have re-imposed border controls and limited the number of migrants they will accept, leaving thousands stuck in grim conditions at European crossings.
The attack on Brussels, which left 31 dead, was likely to make matters worse for the refugees, with Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydło quick to say her country would no longer take in the agreed 7,000 refugees.
“The refugee and terrorist crises are completely different topics but obviously public opinion links them,” said Dominique Moïsi of the French Institute for International Relations.
“The more you see terrorist activities the less you want to see refugees, which is very unfair for the refugees but this is part of the emotional response of public opinion.”
Wright said a tougher stance on migrants would do little to prevent further attacks.
“Many of these terrorists are already residents or citizens of Europe. They wouldn’t be stopped by tougher migration laws,” he told AFP.
Rise of right-wing populists
The refugee crisis and Islamic State threat have pushed voters into the arms of right-wing parties. One has already taken power in Poland, while others are experiencing a surge in support from Slovakia to Sweden, Austria to France.
The latest attack could deepen support for such parties.
“It seems like it could play into the hands of the populists and the nationalists. Their message of closing borders, of greater intolerance may have added resonance after the attacks,” said Wright.
However, he said their policies would be “counterproductive”.
“The answer is not to reimpose borders, target Muslim communities or pull out of the European Union — the answer is increased co-operation between countries, engaging Muslim communities and isolating IS.”
Will yet another attack on European soil direct more Britons to tick the ‘Leave’ box in a June referendum on membership of the EU?
The eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) immediately seized upon the Brussels attacks, saying they showed that “lax border controls are a threat to our security.”
“Rationally, the Brits should not leave Europe,” said Moisi.
“Emotionally they may feel they want to as a kind of protest gesture against their own elites and an irrational feeling of self-protection against terrorism.
“Six months ago I would have said the British would vote to stay in Europe, today I am much less sure.”
Donald Trump credits his surprising juggernaut in the Republican presidential race to the IS attacks on Paris.
“Something happened, something called Paris,” he said during a recent rally.
“This whole run took on a whole new meaning … We need protection in our country. And all of a sudden, the poll numbers shot up.”
He has used the IS threat to argue for a total ban on all Muslims entering the country. He also wants laws that permit torture of terror suspects.
“With the craziness that is going on with the migration, with people pouring in all over the place, I think that Britain will end up separating from the EU, that’s my opinion,” Trump
said in an interview with ITV television broadcast on Thursday.
Trump seized on the Brussels attacks saying anyone who tried the same in the US would “suffer greatly”.
Wright said the bombings “could benefit those who are calling for closing borders, defining this as a clash of civilisations and saying Islam is the enemy.”
However, he points out that the mood could change as the election shifts gears from the party primaries to candidates facing the country as a whole.
“My view is that American people are more tolerant, they want to work with other countries. They don’t see Islam as the enemy.”