Here are a few words you keep hearing about Europe today: Drift. Relapse. Malaise. Trouble.
If news cycles now move in eye blinks, political epochs come in quicker too. The current era — of Europe in trouble once again — is at once jarring and familiar.
Only two years ago, of course, Brusselswas a city on the verge of a nervous breakdown, struck hard by twin political blows. Shortly after Britain became the first EU country to choose, in June of 2016, to head for the exits, America elected a president vocally hostile to the EU and NATO. The pillars of the post-war order seemed to be shaking.
Europe turned things around in 2017. The election surprises early that year were establishment-friendly victories in the Netherlands and France. The voting public’s embrace of stability and the golden middle came personified in the form of Emmanuel Macron, who celebrated his election win in France with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem.
These political shifts will send shockwaves of a magnitude that’s impossible to predict, but not hard to imagine.
The 27 unified as one against Britain in Brexit talks. Plans were drawn up inBrussels, Rome and Bratislava to reboot Europe. The Continent’s economy kept humming. The conventional wish fantasy went like this: The forces of populism are in retreat; the shocks of Brexit and Trump had brought continental electorates to their senses; the relief and confidence about Europe’s future was the real deal. Oh Brussels Joy, indeed!
Unmistakably, though, the EU establishment is stumbling in 2018 — cut by cut, notching up losses.
Germany, in retrospect, sounded the alarm last fall. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the ur-establishment leader of Europe, held on to power but came out weakened in her reelection bid. Worryingly for her and her colleagues around the EU table, it turned out the populists weren’t on a back foot. For the first time since World War II, a far-right party, Alternative for Germany, took seats (92 after a pair of defections) in theBundestag. The tab for the Chancellor’s open-door migration policy had come in higher than expected.
These three blows can be rationalized away by Euro-elites as happening on the margins of the EU, or at least in relatively small countries where the populists could be contained. Not Italy, the biggest political shock of 2018 (so far).
There, the March elections sidelined the mainstream right and left and catapulted the anti-establishment 5Star Movement and the far-right League to the top of the polls. It brought home that in this era of political disruption, the disruptors — or extremists, depending on your point of view — aren’t just disrupting; in many cases, they’re replacing the legacy players.
Even in France, the main alternatives to Macron aren’t the Socialists or Les Républicains, they are Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon the far left.
These political shifts will send shockwaves of a magnitude that’s impossible to predict, but not hard to imagine. Italy, the third-largest EU power once Britain leaves, may sooner or later be run by two parties who agree on little other than their apparent eagerness to break stuff. It could be Italy’s debt — a default in the trillions of euros. It could be the euro, if they follow through on past promises to hold a referendum on membership in the single currency. And what’s ultimately broken could be the EU as we know it, if any such referendum goes against Brussels, as most that have been held have done.
The existential threat to Europe is back on the table, even if, unlike in 2016, it is little discussed. Perhaps there’s denial or fatigue. The crisis, to be sure, this time is moving in slow motion and isn’t close to full-blown. Europe knows what that feels like. But: As much as some like to say that Europeans found new love for the EU in the wake of Brexit — and yes, they did — it’s also indisputable that never before have so many EU countries been led by people who are hostile to the “project.”
Donald Trump is turning out to be a more serious foe than the European establishment expected.
Transatlantic troubles have added another heavy stone to a growing sense of Brussels dread. Dismissed with some glee on much of the Continent as an Ugly American vulgarian and ineffectual to boot, Donald Trump is turning out to be a more serious foe than the European establishment expected.
He tore up Europe’s beloved Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, the prides of EU diplomacy, and is flexing America’s trade muscles too. Not only can the EU do little about any of it, the contretemps has brought home the painful reality of Europe’s weakness: its dependence on the U.S. for security and for commerce. “You can’t say Trump is unsuccessful,” as one European mandarin begrudgingly put it the other day.
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European leaders can, in part, blame themselves for this era of drift.They identified an opportunity in Brexit to focus European minds and force fixes — but then wasted it. Whatever happened to the visions of the future, unveiled on the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding last year with the kind of pomp only Europe can pull off?
The promised new Franco-German motor with Manu and Merkel in the front is turning out to be a Trabi. Merkel’s coolness toward Macron’s ideas for Europe — even if she seems to like the man himself — has taken the luster off the French president’s halo and sapped the momentum out of his plans.
Meanwhile, in Brussels village politics: The storm over Martin Selmayr’s appointment to the top civil servant’s job this spring divided the town, heightened and highlighted resentment of German dominance at top of the EU, and politically hobbled his boss, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, heading into his last year on the job. In short, an own goal.
Even without #Selmayrgate, “lame duck” is sticking tight to Juncker, as well as to the other “president” in town, the Council’s Donald Tusk, and the European Parliament ahead of next year’s European election and the turnover of all the top EU jobs.
The expected story line there, no surprise, isn’t a bright one for Brussels: Populists are poised to disrupt the Parliament and possibly other institutions as well, no matter how hard Macron tries to get a Continent-wide endorsement for his brand of politics.
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As with sports, as with politics: A losing streak doesn’t have to ruin a season. But it does hit confidence and expose weaknesses; and it should force some hard rethinking — and perhaps a change of coach or a reshuffle in the front office.
Europe is condemned to the politicians it elects; Brussels is condemned to the leaders those politicians put in its top jobs. At least, until next year. But a few possible wins are available.
Ahead of next month’s EU summit, the French are cautiously hopeful the new German finance minister, Olaf Scholz, could get behind some kind of eurozone reform package. Tusk would also love to tout a summit compromise on migration between the south and north.
A Brexit deal too should by early fall become clearer. Both sides need this win. For Brussels, the catch is the unpredictability of British politics; for London, the inflexibility of the Brussels Brexit negotiations machine run by Michel Barnier. A failure here — whether via the fall of British Prime Minister Theresa May or a collapse in the negotiations — is seen as less unlikely than earlier this year. At every previous cliff edge, London pulled back and bent to Brussels’ will. Brussels hopes that will happen again.
The G7 and NATO summits, coming in quick succession this summer, are unlikely to improve Euro-spirits about transatlantic relations. But amid Trump’s threats to slap tariffs on steel and cars, a long-shot win for Europe is a potential alliance with the U.S. to press China on trade. Brussels not-so-secretly desires one, but finds itself dealing with an American president who doesn’t wish to do it any favors.
At any level, politics is about moods and perceptions. After months of elite stumbles and deepening gloom, the EU forecast for the second half of this year — barring a sudden good break or two — will be familiar to anybody living in Brussels: cold, cloudy, with little chance of sun.