BRUSSELS — In the Europe of his childhood, Corrado Pirzio-Biroli was a wartime prisoner. His mother was held in a concentration camp. His grandfather was hanged for an aborted attempt to overthrow Hitler.
In the Europe of his working life, Pirzio-Biroli was a respected ambassador and bureaucrat, a professional who made life orderly, regulated and dull on a continent that needed peace above all else after decades of globe-shaking violence.
And in the Europe of his old age, the 75-year-old with twinkling blue eyes narrowly missed being blown up on Tuesday morning as he rode the Brussels subway.
Even before an Islamic State bomber detonated himself directly beneath the behemoth steel-and-glass office buildings that form the utilitarian core of the modern European Union, the very idea of Europe was under extraordinary strain.
An unparalleled inflow of refugees. An economy that never bounced back from a global recession. A surge for the political extremes, along with a hollowing out of the center.
But now Europe also faces the reality of mass-casualty attacks in its largest cities, perpetrated by its very own people. Even for an inveterate optimist like Pirzio-Biroli – who has seen Europe rise from a war-scarred hell to a stable and prosperous union — it’s enough to make him fear for the continent’s future.
“We’re in a very deep crisis,” he said sadly on Wednesday as he gazed at a police cordon around the site where he could have died just a day earlier, had his timing been a little different. “Part of the glue that held us together has gone.”
That sentiment is now widespread. A union that has for decades been seen around the world as a beacon for civilization — “a paradise,” in Pirzio-Biroli’s words — is being ridiculed both at home and abroad for being weak, divided and potentially nearing a breakup.
The attacks that quite literally shook the foundations of the E.U. on Tuesday won’t trigger that unraveling on their own. And yet they add to a palpable sense that Europe can’t cope with its many overlapping crises.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls acknowledged the threat on Wednesday, calling for sweeping new powers to be given to European intelligence agencies and noting pointedly that Europe’s wounds are at least partially self-inflicted – the result of its leaders’ inability to get things done.
“If Europe doesn’t rise to the challenges it will break up, and there our responsibility will be very grave,” he said on a visit to Brusssels, where he laid a wreath at the subway station that was targeted Tuesday. “We have the Europe that we deserve.”
The continent’s storm has been building for some time. But the disparate forces that feed it are only coalescing now.
An anemic recovery to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 weakened the bonds between citizens and their state and drove a deep wedge between nations bound together in a union that operates on the basis of unanimous consent.
Wars that Europe participated in on its periphery — in the Middle East, Afghanistan and North Africa – went badly awry, spawning more wars and bringing a historic number of refugees to the continent’s doorstep while feeding radicalization at home.
The self-evident failure of the governing elites spawned a political backlash and a rush to populists on both the right and the left who would rather tear down the creaky superstructure of the E.U. than go through the labors of trying to patch it up.
The United States has faced similar struggles. But geography works to Europe’s disadvantage and makes the continent uniquely vulnerable right now.
“We have a rare combination in Europe: Both the domestic scene and the external neighborhood are in disarray,” said Jan Techau, Brussels-based director of Carnegie Europe.
Meanwhile, the E.U. as a system was not built to handle such extreme stress, he said. Its machinery moves ploddingly by design — the better to settle grievances fairly, and without any sudden movements that could trigger the sort of all-consuming conflict across European borders that necessitated its creation.
“Europe built a machine — a deliberately boring, conflict-resolution machine. And at that, the E.U. is great,” he said. “But it’s not built to handle these kinds of high-voltage currents being fed into it all at the same time. At a certain point, it starts to overheat.”
The grinding down of the machinery can be seen in the continent’s stumbling response to the refugee crisis, its inability to move collaboratively to combat homegrown extremists and the growing ambivalence among E.U. members over whether to stick with the club at all.
The threats reinforce each other.
Britain will vote in June on whether to leave the E.U., a move that would deprive the bloc of one of its cornerstones. Tuesday’s attacks likely won’t help those pushing for the country to stay in: Within hours of the strikes, advocates of what’s being called a “Brexit” were tweeting messages describing Brussels as Europe’s “jihadist capital” and mocking the idea that the country is safer by sticking with the union.
A vote to get out would galvanize anti-E.U. forces continent-wide and make it even harder for the union to govern. Europe’s ascendant far right is pushing a nationalist revival, along with a return to rigid internal border controls. That, far-right leaders say, is the only way to regain security following a disastrously managed refugee influx.
But even if the borders are sealed, much of Europe’s security problem emanates from within — the brothers who blew themselves up in Brussels on Tuesday were native sons — raising the specter that Europe will simply have to resign itself to the likelihood of more attacks.
“We’re seeing this as part of the new normal,” said Karel Lannoo, chief executive of the European Center for Policy Studies. “But do we accept that this becomes part of normality?”
Pirzio-Biroli isn’t ready to give up on the Europe he’s spent a lifetime trying to help build. The continent simply has to recognize, he said, what’s at stake.
A gray-haired and distinguished-looking Italian who considers himself a European above all else, he was born into the mayhem of World War II and, after his mother’s arrest when he was 4, he was taken away by the Nazis.
“One has to realize that this happened to my generation,” he said. “We have to avoid that happening to any future generation.”
Pirzio-Biroli spent his career making policy at the European Commission, and he believes deeply in an idea that’s lately gone out of style: that Europe can only solve its problems collaboratively.
On Tuesday morning, he boarded a subway train en route to a conference on the future of agriculture policy, just the sort of arcane and earnest event on which this city is built. It was only later that he learned 20 people had died on the train behind his.
“It could have been any of us,” he said.
Back near the scene of the blast on Wednesday — the bomb detonated almost exactly beneath his office — he said he hoped Europe’s response to the attack would be to bind together. But he feared that it would be to pull apart — which is, perhaps, exactly as the attackers intended.
“Their extremists are creating our extremists,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer to that is.”
Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.