The physical damage was easy to see. The attackers’ bombs shattered an airport terminal and a subway station.
But when one of the European Union’s top leaders expressed his sympathies to the men, women and children hurt and killed in Brussels on Tuesday morning, he hinted that the three attackers purportedly acting on behalf of the extremist group Islamic State had caused even greater damage.
“These attacks have hit Brussels today, Paris yesterday,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “But it is Europe as a whole that has been targeted.”
When the European Union was created in 1993, one of its founding principles was the notion of open borders and free travel among member nations. But this week’s bombings in Belgium and a similar wave of attacks last year in France have raised questions about whether that very openness has left the continent too vulnerable.
Raising the level of concern is a massive influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East that has prompted several nations to throw up razor-wire barricades and tough new security checkpoints.
Top European Union officials this week were using the widespread public alarm over the Belgian attacks to call for stronger coordination and information-sharing between European countries. While many of those who have mounted attacks so far are third- or fourth-generation Europeans, some political leaders have expressed concern that the large number of arrivals from war-torn Syria could allow militants to gain unlimited access to countries across Europe.
“While they overlap in timing, they should not be confused. Those people who have arrived on our shores are precisely fleeing the same terror that has struck us, right here in the heart of Europe. To antagonize those seeking protection would be giving in to the hatred and division that terrorists seek to sow.”
Avramopoulos emphasized that the so-called Schengen Agreement, which abolished internal borders to allow free travel between member nations — “is not the problem.”
“But let me also say that we cannot have a secure area of internal free movement without better control of our external borders,” he said.
The apparent ability for Islamic militants to plan and carry out attacks in Europe will probably bolster right-wing politicians who have called for European governments to turn away refugees fleeing countries like Syria and Afghanistan and to heavily police predominantly Muslim communities.
“This is really the fruition of fears that people have had,” said Edwin M. Smith, a professor of law, international relations and political science at USC. “In the European Union now, there are lots of right-wing xenophobes across Europe who have been pushing to limit the European Union, and now you have an event that gives fodder to that fire.”
In Germany, the country’s “open doors” policy to migrants arriving in Europe led to large victories in regional elections in March for the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany party.
One of the party’s co-leaders controversially suggested in one newspaper interview that “police must stop migrants crossing illegally from Austria, and, if necessary, use firearms,” a comment that immediately drew an outcry.
The head of France’s far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, was already citing the Brussels attacks as validation of her views.
Dominic Thomas, the chair of the French department at UCLA, described a “general, Europeanwide sentiment of fear” of immigrants that has grown on top of economic insecurities and the stresses of globalization.
“People’s morale is pretty low in Europe in general,” Thomas said. “There aren’t many places where people say the future is something to look forward to.”
And Thomas said the migration controversy will probably only get worse.
“As we move toward the summer months and the water is calmer, and people are going to be outside longer — I think we’re going to see a massive exodus from Africa and the Middle East,” Thomas said. “This is just the beginning.”
Samira Assassi, a Moroccan-Belgian real-estate agent in Brussels, supported stronger border restrictions in Europe.
“I think you should close all the borders, and when you cross to any country, there should be control, even within Europe,” Assassi said. “Europe is a group of countries. I think it is normal. I think they should control who comes in and who goes out.”
She added, “We don’t lose anything, we win everything.”
“We shouldn’t go back before Europe. We should go forward. We should make Europe better,” Linker said.
Ann Katharine Lothin, another Brussels resident, complained that some immigrants coming to the country got more support from the government than native residents.
“I want controls,” Lothin said. “I think you must take the right people.”
But, Lothin added, “It’s so difficult.”
Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Chad from Brussels.
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