“We are on the brink of a civil war.” That’s how Patrick Calvar, head of France’s domestic-security agency, described the jihadist threat to his country in early summer. Just a few weeks later, a man drove a truck through crowds in Nice, killing 84 people and injuring dozens more. It was the first and bloodiest of a gruesome sequence of attacks on the Continent unfolding over just two weeks. In Germany’s northern Bavaria, a teenage refugee, believed to be from Pakistan, who was attacking commuters with an ax and a knife was killed by police. In nearby Ansbach, a Syrian refugee denied asylum attempted to blow up a concert but succeeded only in killing himself. In France, on July 26, a pair of extremists slit the throat of an elderly priest in a church in Normandy before being shot by police. All had committed themselves to ISIS, which claimed them as its “soldiers.”
Europe’s summer of blood threatens to destabilize its two largest countries and potentially doom an already wounded European project. Worst hit is France, where authorities seem powerless. In the latest embarrassment, one of the Normandy attackers turned out to be a known extremist with a tracking tag on his ankle. Two-thirds of French citizens have now lost confidence in the government’s ability to fight terrorism, and President François Hollande is running out of options. He has promised that 10,000 more military troops would be mobilized, but police and soldiers say they have been stretched to the point of exhaustion by a state of emergency that has lasted eight months, with at least six more to go.
Germany was lucky enough to avoid ISIS-linked attacks before this summer. No longer–two attacks by self-radicalized refugees in the space of seven days have put the country on edge, along with the fatal shooting of nine people in Munich on July 22 by a German-Iranian teenager who was not motivated by religion. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened Germany’s borders to refugees last summer, has increasingly become the focus of blame. Fears about the threat posed by refugees could erode her still high levels of support, as happened after a gang of migrants assaulted women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
Certainly Merkel’s hawkish coalition partners in the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party didn’t waste an opportunity to sound the alarm. “Islamist terrorism has arrived in Germany,” Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s premier and a long-standing critic of Merkel’s stance toward refugees, said on July 26. “We need more security in Germany. People are riled up, full of fear, and that is completely understandable.” The CSU is calling for Germany’s police and military to be given extended powers, a significant demand in a country shadowed by its Nazi and Stasi past. The right-wing anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany is calling for mass deportations of failed asylum seekers and hopes to gain ground in a key state election this September.
Merkel will likely argue for a more pragmatic approach, given that Germany has long prepared for an increase in extremist activity accompanying the influx of refugees. Hollande, however, is polling at 17% and looks set to be drawn into a nasty, nationalistic debate in France by his more conservative rivals–with more militarized surveillance and greater border defenses under consideration.
The attacks have shaken an E.U. already threatened by the looming departure of the U.K., which was galvanized by complaints over migration. The guarantee of free movement across borders, a keystone of the E.U., is at risk. “We are not at that watershed moment yet where Europe will overhaul one of its core founding pillars,” says Matthew Goodwin, a senior visiting fellow at the think tank Chatham House. “But the ingredients are there.”
If the extremist violence continues and the E.U. deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle East collapses, voters may demand tougher solutions from whoever is willing to offer them. Next year will give them plenty of opportunities to do so–France will elect a new President and Germany a new legislature. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islamist party of Geert Wilders is well positioned to win power in March. The “civil war” in Europe could yet produce a new, more hostile generation of leaders.
This appears in the August 08, 2016 issue of TIME.