Paris Attacks Come at a Dangerous Moment for Europe

Les attentats de Paris se produisent à un moment où l’Europe doute d’elle-même. Avant d’avoir fini de maîtriser la crise économique et financière, elle affronte en ordre dispersé l’arrivée massive de réfugiés. La France s’est placée en première ligne dans la guerre en Syrie mais elle ne peut faire face seule aux attaques de Daech. Un commentaire de Robin Niblett, de l’institut Chatham House.

I was living and working in Washington when Al-Qaeda carried out its terror attacks on 11 September 2001. Apart from the shock, there was an overpowering determination in the aftermath to bring Al-Qaeda to account and to destroy it so it could never again mount such attacks. After the horror in Paris last night, will France and its EU partners follow a similar instinct and logic towards Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ? If not, what are the alternatives ?

As with 9/11, the 13 September attacks in Paris were of a scale and nature to appear to qualify as an act of war. President François Hollande explicitly stated this today, and so have several French newspapers - reflecting the numbers of casualties and the careful planning inside and outside France that the attacks apparently involved. In this context, halting French military strikes on ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq is politically untenable.

Given the debacle surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is easy to forget that there was broad public and political support in 2001 in Paris and London, as well as Washington, that the battle should be taken to Al-Qaeda in its base - Afghanistan - from which the attack had been mounted. NATO launched an Article V operation to help protect US air space, while European military forces supported the ensuing NATO-led military operation. Allies will also now want to show solidarity with France depending on its chosen course of action. Moreover, as with Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, ISIS has a physical presence across Syria and Iraq which provides targets for military strikes.

But there are two key differences with the aftermath of 13/11 in Europe. First, French and European reactions will play out in a post-Iraq environment, in which the risks and limitations of military intervention have been made painfully apparent to publics and politicians alike. Some will argue that continued or increased military intervention in the region will not only have little effect, but will prompt further attacks at home. The number of returning fighters means that ISIS has a much larger group of potential supporters in European societies than Al-Qaeda did with its small cells, which still planned and in some cases carried out devastating attacks. This factor amplifies the potential risks to European governments of escalating their military intervention. At the very least, adopting a unified position for a more muscular response among European governments and across the Atlantic will be extremely difficult.

Second, these were classic terrorist attacks, killing civilians in soft targets which can never be fully protected. A key part of their design is to provoke a counter-reaction that divides European societies internally, as well as between each other, and helps recruit new adherents in Europe and beyond. The choice of targets - symbols of European integration rather than state authority - was interesting in this regard. Some European governments, including France’s, rejected declaring ’war on terror’ after 9/11. They are unlikely to change their minds now, as much for the practical reason that most terrorists come from within their societies, even if many have had their terrorist skills honed overseas.

But simply maintaining the current mix of European policies is not an option either. The attack comes at a very dangerous moment for Europe. Angst, confusion and disagreement over how to handle the unprecedented wave of refugees and migrants are coming to a boil. Economic growth remains anaemic in many parts of Europe and unemployment still high. The attacks may strengthen the hand of populist parties which have benefited from these trends just as key elections loom across Europe, starting with regional elections in France in three weeks’ time.

The Paris attacks are now a further challenge to the credibility of EU governments. Whereas the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January rallied Europeans around the principle of free speech, people will now wonder whether governments have the capacity to defend them physically, as well as protect their way of life.

At a minimum, therefore, EU governments will come under enormous pressure to stem the inflow of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Many of those arriving are escaping exactly the sort of violence seen on the streets of Paris last night. However, unconfirmed reports that at least one of the terrorists entered Europe through Greece will play into popular fears that terrorists are entering Europe with this inflow. The refugee crisis has severely undermined trust between publics and governments in many parts of Europe, and poses fundamental questions about identity and integration which will not be resolved in the short term. In this context, and under the shadow of possible further attacks, it is hard to see how signatories to the Schengen Agreement can retain open internal borders until they have greater confidence in their surveillance and intelligence-sharing and have established greater control over the EU’s external borders.

EU governments will also redouble their efforts to find a resolution to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq which have given space for the rise of ISIS. This will require a more intelligent combination of military force and diplomatic initiative. EU governments ignored warnings three years ago that letting the Syria crisis play itself out was replete with its own dangers. Now they will have to focus simultaneously on helping stabilize Libya, Yemen and other vulnerable states in the region and Sahel. The Paris attacks are a terrible confirmation that Europe’s geography leaves them no other option.