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. Illiberal governments hold power in Hungary and Poland, and a far-right candidate once again reached the second round of France’s presidential election last year. Far-right parties have entered or support governments in Finland and Sweden, and Italy’s elections in September resulted in its first far-right government since the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
Even as leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have fended off challenges from right-wing opposition parties at home, they have also sought 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.
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Those external threats are myriad. Most prominent among them now is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose persistent attempts to destabilize the European order culminated in the invasion of Ukraine. But rather than divide the West, as Putin perhaps expected, the war has revitalized trans-Atlantic ties and given the NATO alliance newfound relevance and urgency. And the EU response to Putin’s aggression has been robust, particularly with regard to economic sanctions. For now, the degree of unity and cohesion displayed by the EU has surprised many observers, but with the war in Ukraine dragging on, there is no guarantee it will endure.
Putin isn’t the only concern occupying European policymakers. U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated a more conventional approach to trans-Atlantic ties than his predecessor, Donald Trump, exemplified by Biden’s leadership in the ongoing crisis over Ukraine. But numerous tensions within the partnership—over trade relations and burden-sharing on defense, for instance—preceded the current moment of solidarity over the standoff with Russia, and those tensions, as well as new ones, will no doubt resurface over time.
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. What are the long-term political and security implications of the war in Ukraine for Europe? Will the EU establish itself as an independent global strategic actor, given its security dependence on the U.S.? And how will the EU navigate its relations with an increasingly assertive China? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
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When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced in July that he was stepping down and leaving politics, he unleashed a chain reaction of resignations and political realignments in the Netherlands. The transition to the post-Rutte era has upended the national political landscape, opening the way for a new generation of leaders.
Elections and Domestic Politics
Overshadowed by the rise of the far right has been the growing support for various national Green parties, driven by both the mounting pressure to address climate change and the absence of any other viable political home for left-leaning voters. Meanwhile, even as the center has held against the threat from the political extremes in many recent elections across Europe, compromise might be increasingly hard to come by in the face of political polarization. That could prove especially costly when it comes to addressing challenges like rising inflation due to lingering fallout from the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- Why Germany’s far left is fertile ground for a populist movement, in Germany Might Soon Have a Far-Left Version of the AfD
- How a Cold War-era dispute between Italy and France continues to have repercussions today, in Italy and France’s Dispute Over 1970s Ex-Militants Takes Another Turn
- Why Spain’s regional nationalist parties could pay a cost whether they help reelect the prime minister or not, in Spain’s Elections Have Put Regional Parties in a Bind
- What’s driving the voter backlash to green policies in Europe, in The Green Transition Is Becoming an Electoral Minefield
The European Union
The EU managed to survive the populist wave by turning to its historical crisis-response strategy: muddling through. But efforts to reform the EU have stalled, leaving it vulnerable in the face of future crises—and to the changing global geopolitical landscape. The coronavirus pandemic initially seemed to be a perfect storm combining both challenges, but instead it opened a window of opportunity for enhanced integration, particularly when it comes to fiscal policy and collective debt, as well as addressing regional and global security challenges. So far the EU has also effectively responded to the war in Ukraine, but it, too, presents long-term challenges that won’t be easy to overcome.
- Why the EU needs to rethink how it engages with Latin America, in The EU Shouldn’t Let Ukraine Derail Ties With Latin America
- Why Romania’s reluctance to be proactive in policy debates within EU and NATO institutions has now become problematic., in Romania Is Punching Below Its Weight in the EU and NATO
- Why an EU anti-graft initiative is raising hackles among member states, in The EU Pushes for a Common Playbook to Tackle Corruption
- Why the implosion of the EU’s effort to assist Sudan’s transition to democracy raises tough questions for Brussels, in The EU Has Been Sleepwalking Through Sudan’s Crisis
During his four years in office, Trump infuriated America’s long-standing European allies, lobbing trade threats and backing out of hard-won international agreements. At the same time, he cozied up to some of the continent’s more illiberal regimes, particularly Poland and Hungary. The arrival of the Biden administration improved the tone of the relationship, even as divergences on key policy and strategic issues continued to arise. For now, any tensions are on hold due to the need for cohesion over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they haven’t necessarily gone away.
- How Washington’s approach to EU defense is weakening NATO, in To Strengthen NATO, the U.S. Should Embrace EU Defense
- How the G-7 has become a key “coordinating committee” for the U.S. and Europe in their rivalry with Russia and China, in The G-7 Now Has a Plan for Countering China and Russia
- Why the U.S.-China rivalry makes Washington’s ties with Europe more important than ever, in The U.S. Still Needs Europe to Compete With China
- Why Washington’s leadership of the Western response to the war in Ukraine might be too successful for its own good, in U.S. Leadership on Ukraine Is Increasing European Dependence
The EU has been struggling to strike a balance in its relationship with China. Ahead of the pandemic, the newly installed European Commission had taken a harder line toward Beijing, particularly over unfair trade practices. But China also represents economic opportunity to many of Europe’s leaders, leaving the bloc divided over how to balance China’s value as an economic partner and its risk as a strategic rival.
- What the latest “wolf warrior” incident revealed about Europe’s leverage when it comes to ties with China, in A United Europe Can Stand Up to China
- Why another “wolf warrior” gaffe could have lasting consequences for China’s ties with Eastern Europe, in Another ‘Wolf Warrior’ Controversy Strains China’s Ties With Europe
- What the recent controversial remarks by France’s president reveal about Europe’s approach to ties with China, in Macron Put the Spotlight on Europe’s Disjointed China Policy
- How France’s president muddied the waters on Europe’s China strategy, in Macron’s Confusing Vision for France and Europe’s Relations With China
Democracy and Rule of Law
Democratic norms have been under attack throughout Europe for the past decade, with leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban and Poland’s Andrzej Duda chipping away at the rule of law in their countries. The EU has armed itself with new mechanisms to increase its leverage over recalcitrant member states that don’t respect its democratic norms. But with Orban having recently won a landslide reelection victory, Brussels’ problem isn’t going away anytime soon, and he just gained an ally in Rome with the election of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the head of a far-right coalition government. At the same time, unprecedented popular movements have arisen to counter these threats to democracy, and recent elections in France, Slovenia and most recently the Czech Repuclic demonstrate that the appeal of right-wing populists could be on the wane elsewhere in Europe.
- How randomly selected panels of citizens are reinventing democracy in Europe and beyond, in Citizens’ Assemblies Could Be Democracy’s Best Hope
- How Hungary and Poland helped write the playbook for political capture of the judiciary, in When Is Judicial Reform Anti-Democratic?
- Why the EU is losing its nerve over applying rule-of-law penalties against Hungary, in In Its Rule-of-Law Standoff With Hungary, the EU Just Blinked
- How Brussels looked the other way on Greece’s illegal migrant “pushback” policy—and Athens’ crackdown on the press covering it, in Greece’s Press Is the Latest Casualty of Mitsotakis’ War on Migrants
Trade and Economy
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, 2021. The economic impact of the war in Ukraine is also already being felt across the bloc, in the form of rising energy costs and food prices.
- Why the EU and London may have finally closed the book on Brexit, in Did Sunak’s Northern Ireland Protocol Deal Finally ‘Get Brexit Done’?
- How Brexit is weighing down the British economy, in As the EU Economy Picks Up, Brexit Clouds the U.K.’s Forecast
- Why Russia presents a new and unique test case for Western sanctions, in Sanctions on Russia Are a Long Game, Not a Quick Fix
- Why the U.S. and European sanctions against Russia won’t affect the outcome of the war in Ukraine, in The West’s Sanctions Against Russia Aren’t Working
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.