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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?

Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021

The liberal European order that emerged after World War II and spread after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been under attack from both within and without in recent years. The European Union—the ultimate expression of the European project—had long been a convenient punching bag for opportunistic politicians in many of its member countries, as anti-EU sentiment was integrated into the broader populist platform of protectionism and opposition to immigration. But the European debt crisis in the early 2010s, followed by the refugee crisis in 2015, fueled the rise of far-right and populist parties across Europe, and for a time raised questions about the union’s long-term survival. The shocking outcome of the U.K.’s Brexit referendum in 2016 added to those concerns.

Although the populist wave that once seemed like an existential threat to the union has since subsided, vestiges of it remain, in part because centrist leaders seem unable to come up with a response to immigration that doesn’t alienate more voters than it unites. Illiberal governments hold power in Hungary and Poland, and far-right parties were briefly part of coalition governments in Austria and Italy.

The coronavirus pandemic further highlighted the EU’s difficulties in providing effective collective responses to a crisis that, at least initially, saw each member state looking out for itself. Since then, however, the EU’s collective vaccine procurement program proved to be a success, and the bloc took a huge step toward enhanced integration in July 2020, when it agreed to a historic deal that included a collective debt mechanism to help finance pandemic relief funds.

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 position Europe as an independent pole in an increasingly multipolar world. To achieve that goal, however, the EU will have to overcome its internal divisions and bat down external threats to articulate a coherent collective foreign and security policy backed by a credible military deterrent.

Those external threats are myriad. Russian President Vladimir Putin persists in his attempts to destabilize the European order. U.S. President Joe Biden has committed to repairing the damage done to trans-Atlantic ties by his predecessor, Donald Trump, but tensions over European defense spending and energy ties with Russia will endure. The EU must also navigate a relationship with China that is becoming increasingly complex, combining areas of cooperation with elements of strategic rivalry and confrontation, even as Brussels seeks to stake out an independent position amid the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. And all the while, Brussels must address recurring tensions with states on the EU’s periphery, like Turkey and Belarus.

WPR has covered Europe in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will tensions over the terms of Brexit undermine political and security ties between the EU and the U.K.? Will the EU overcome its internal obstacles to make progress on defense cooperation and fiscal integration? And will trans-Atlantic ties really improve under the administration of President Joe Biden? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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In the face of Trump’s hostility to free trade, the EU redoubled its efforts to seek out new partners in defense of the liberal trade order. Meanwhile, with Brexit now official, the EU must navigate the political and economic fallout of its permanent trade deal with the U.K., which went into effect on Jan. 1.

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