The outpouring of support for Belgium across Europe in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Brussels during rush hour this morning is more than just the solidarity expressed after a tragedy.
As the de facto hub of the European Union and base of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the bombings at the city’s international airport and underground subway system, killing at least 30 people, have struck at the heart of the European Union. Already under stress from the migration crisis that has spurred infighting and border closures across the bloc, Tuesday's attacks in the European capital further challenge the EU's solidarity against extremism.
French President François Hollande, his own country still reeling from the attacks in Paris that killed 130 just four months ago, said: “Through the Brussels attacks, it is the whole of Europe that is hit.”
A European Commission spokesperson said this afternoon that all the flags adorning EU buildings will be put at half mast.
Two bombings in the check-in lobby of the city’s main airport this morning killed at least 11 according to news reports, while another bombing in a subway car about 45 minutes later killed 20. Dozens more are injured, some critically, and authorities have emphasized that a clear death toll is not yet known.
Officials have said that at least one of the explosions at the airport appears to have been set off by a suicide bomber.
Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, called March 22 the “worst day in Belgian history since World War II.”
And the city of Brussels is coming together much as Paris did after its deadly attack Nov. 13. The hashtags "#ikwilhelpen" (I want to help), “#PorteOuverte,” and “#OpenHouse” – a reflection of the official languages of the Belgian capital and the one most widely spoken among the international organizations, English – have lit up social media in an effort to offer services, rides home, and places to stay while the city is ground to a halt.
But the attack Tuesday is felt well beyond the city of Brussels, which is the headquarters of hundreds of international institutions. The bombs at the airport, which went off around 8 a.m., the busiest time for international flights at the airport, was followed by a blast at the Maelbeek subway station, just a short walk from the core institutions of the EU.
European Council President Donald Tusk issued a statement condemning the bombings and reminding the world of the special role Belgium plays in the EU.
“These attacks mark another low by the terrorists in the service of hatred and violence,” Mr. Tusk said. “The European institutions are hosted in Brussels thanks to the generosity of Belgium’s government and its people. The European Union returns this solidarity now and will fulfill its role to help Brussels, Belgium, and Europe as a whole to counter the terror threat which we are all facing.”
Leaders from Italy to Germany have pledged their support. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that “The unity of the Democrats of the EU is and will always be above barbarity and senselessness.”
The attack also lays bare how vulnerable many parts of Europe are. The attack comes just days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, the remaining suspect in the Paris attack in Nov. 13. Since then Brussels and France have increased intelligence work and kept security risk levels high. Despite that, Brussels remained susceptible to a wide-scale attack.
The French government increased police patrols, with 1,600 extra officers posted around the country. Across Europe, leaders held emergency meetings and raised security at airports, train stations, and other hot spots.
Ultimately the attack could lead to greater social and political divisions in Europe, which has been closing borders amid the migration crisis. Many claim Europe's open-border system is making it more vulnerable to terrorism. Already the far-right in Europe has pointed to this attack as yet another example to illustrate their point.
All Europe faces increased risks of terrorism, especially with the rise of the Islamic State (IS). And Belgium is particularly vulnerable. It has the highest percentage of citizens to have joined terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
After the Nov. 13 attack in Paris, Brussels came to a standstill as authorities sought to find those involved in the attack in Paris – as they feared they posed a similar risk to Belgium.
“We were fearing terrorist attacks, and that has now happened,” Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium said Tuesday. And once again he asked residents to stay put, as the city closed down public transport, and international train services were suspended.
This attack could also lead to more tension between France and Belgium, which, despite their success on Friday, have been at odds over who shares responsibility for the terrorist cells that have taken root in both countries. At the moment however, solidarity reigns. Tonight the Eiffel Tower is to be lit with the colors of the Belgium flag.