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French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel applaud. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel applaud after the signing of a new Germany-France friendship treaty, Aachen, Germany, Jan. 22, 2019 (AP photo by Martin Meissner).

As Challenges Mount, Can Europe Correct Its Course?

Monday, April 20, 2020

The liberal European order that emerged after World War II and spread after the collapse of the Soviet Union is now under attack from both within and without. The European Union—the ultimate expression of the European project—has become a convenient punching bag for opportunistic politicians in many of its member countries, as anti-EU sentiment has become part of the broader populist platform of protectionism and opposition to immigration. The EU still managed to withstand its latest challenge when the gains made by populist parties in last year’s European Parliamentary elections fell short of expectations.

Nevertheless, Britain’s withdrawal from the union, known as Brexit, has now become official, and there is no way of knowing whether the populist wave has crested. Illiberal governments hold power in Hungary and Poland, and a far-right party was part of a coalition government in Austria until its recent collapse. Centrist leaders seem unable to come up with a response to immigration that doesn’t alienate more voters than it unites. And now the coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the EU’s difficulty in providing effective collective responses to a crisis that, at least initially, saw each member state looking out for itself.

Even as leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel try to fend off challenges from right-wing opposition parties at home, they are also seeking to salvage major international initiatives, including the Paris climate agreement, as the United States under President Donald Trump questions its global role.

For his part, Trump has not stopped questioning America’s traditional European partnerships, pressing NATO members to boost their defense spending and threatening to open a new trade war with the EU. And all the while, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing attempts to destabilize the European order have not abated.

WPR has covered Europe in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. With Brexit now official, what will the permanent trade relationship between the EU and the U.K. ultimately look like? Will the EU overcome its internal obstacles to progress on defense cooperation and fiscal integration? And will the coronavirus pandemic drive the EU toward closer cooperation—or leave it more divided? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Elections and Domestic Politics

Overshadowed by the rise of the far right is the growing support for various national Green parties, driven both by the mounting pressure to address climate change and the absence of any other viable political home for left-leaning voters. But as voters shift to the extremes, compromise will be increasingly hard to come by. Elsewhere in Europe, politics remains driven by more locally bound considerations.

Populism and Nationalism

No European country has been immune to rising nationalism, which now dominates the political conversation. Centrist leaders have been scrambling for policies that can hold off the rise of the far right, but have yet to hit on a successful formula, leaving the administrations of key European countries, including Germany and France, vulnerable. It remains unclear whether victories for the left in places like Spain can be recreated.

European Union

Though populists and nationalists did not do as well as some on the left had feared, they did make gains in the European Parliament elections in May. So did the Greens and leftist, pro-EU factions, which appeared to benefit from the perceived threat of a populist surge. The big losers were the established centrist parties, who may be forced to take on more left-leaning policies in order to form a governing majority. Meanwhile, efforts to reform the EU have stalled, leaving it vulnerable in the face of future crises—and to the changing global geopolitical landscape.

Brexit

After replacing Theresa May as British prime minister last year, Boris Johnson gambled on snap elections and won an overwhelming majority to push his Brexit plan through Parliament. Now, with Brexit official, Johnson has entered a new round of negotiations—and brinksmanship—with the EU over what their permanent trade relations will look like.

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Europe-U.S. Relations

Trump has continued to infuriate long-standing allies, lobbing trade threats and backing out of hard-won international agreements. At the same time, he has cozied up to some of the continent’s more repressive regimes, particularly Poland and Hungary.

Trade and Economy

Europe may have benefited from the U.S. trade war with China, as Trump, looking to avoid another battle, decided to postpone a decision on imposing tariffs on European automobiles, a move that could have proven disastrous to the continent’s economy. But in the face of Trump’s hostility to free trade, the EU has redoubled its efforts to seek out new partners in defense of the liberal trade order.

NATO

One of the most striking features of Trump’s approach to foreign policy may be the destabilization of NATO. His bullying has forced European members to begin increasing their financial commitments to the alliance, but it has also forced them to consider a defensive coalition that no longer includes the United States.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.