As Challenges Mount, Can Europe Correct Its Course?

As Challenges Mount, Can Europe Correct Its Course?
European Union leaders pose for a group photo at an EU summit at the Chateau de Versailles, in Versailles, west of Paris, March 10, 2022 (AP photo by Michel Euler).

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 this year. And Italy’s elections in September resulted in its first far-right government since the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.

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 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.

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 his 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.

Our Most Recent Coverage

For the U.K., Sunak Is the Calm Before an Existential Storm

For decades, British commentators have expressed concern over other societies that have faced death spirals of governance. Now it is beginning to dawn on many senior political figures in the U.K. that their own system may be drifting dangerously close to the kind of existential crisis they used to think could only happen elsewhere.

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.

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.

Europe-U.S. Relations

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.

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.

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 just 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 and Slovenia demonstrate that the appeal of right-wing populists could be on the wane elsewhere in Europe.

Europe-China Relations

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.

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

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