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Europe’s Year of Living Defensively

With the future of the EU-UK relationship shrouded in uncertainty and crises brewing in France, Italy, and elsewhere, 2019 will be another difficult year for Europe. And if populist forces prevail in the European Parliament election in May, it could be an impossible one.

BERLIN – From a European perspective, 2019 promises to be another difficult year, dominated by large challenges that could easily turn into menacing crises. Barring a major reversal, the United Kingdom will withdraw from the European Union on March 29. A brewing economic and financial crisis in Italy will intensify, threatening the stability of the eurozone. And France will likely remain beset by populist protests, diminishing its potential to take a lead role in the pursuit of EU-level reforms.

Moreover, the European Parliament election in May could well deliver a nationalist majority or near-majority, which would then determine the next members of the European Commission, the leaders of the European Council and European Central Bank, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Needless to say, a nationalist victory would be a disaster for the EU, because it would derail necessary reforms and further divide member states.

Whatever happens, Europe’s internal political drama will play out against a backdrop of international turmoil. At the same time that Russia is stepping up its aggression in eastern Ukraine, US President Donald Trump is waging a trade war against China, and could expand it to the EU (which he has deemed a “foe”). And, more broadly, the global economy is weakening, and growth will continue to slow in the months ahead.

In the face of these foreseeable challenges, the survival of the European project itself is at stake. As far as Brexit is concerned, much will depend on whether the UK’s withdrawal occurs in an orderly or chaotic fashion. In the latter case, there would be losers all around, and UK-EU relations could be poisoned for a long time to come. No one on either side of the English Channel should wish for this outcome. Life goes on after divorce, and it is generally in the interest of both sides to maintain a healthy relationship. One hopes that common sense prevails.

As with Brexit, the EU leadership in Brussels cannot solve the Italian crisis, but it can and should offer a helping hand. Italy needs growth, which will require full-scale modernization of its economy. Unfortunately, its current government is not pursing policies needed to achieve this, and has instead provoked a confrontation over EU budget rules. The EU will have to show flexibility, while upholding the principles that underpin the sustainability of the monetary union. This suggests that long and excruciating negotiations lie ahead.

In France, the “Yellow Vests” have articulated their demands largely in economic terms, having first taken to the streets to protest against a proposed fuel tax. But the movement also comprises strong “identitarian” elements that have seized on feelings of discontent over the loss of traditional ways of life in the age of globalization and European integration. As in most Western countries, these sentiments are concentrated among traditional working- and middle-class voters who have concluded that the post-war social contract is invalid. Hard work no longer ensures economic security and upward mobility.

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Western elites will not regain the public’s trust until they offer a response to this loss of trust, without which democracy and its core institutions will not be able to function. Complicating matters further, the global balance of power is quickly shifting from West to East, the climate crisis is intensifying, new digital technologies are revolutionizing how we live and work, and migration and refugee waves are adding fuel to the populist backlash.

But if populist forces have a plan that would enable their object of desire – the traditional nation-state – to address these mounting challenges, they have kept it a secret. In reality, only a united Europe is up to the task, which is why next year’s European elections are so important. If populism wins, Europe loses.

It doesn’t help that most of the great changes to the international order over the past few decades have come at Europe’s expense. The rise of China and the revolution in artificial intelligence seem to be leaving Europe on the sidelines. So far, the Old Continent has been asleep at the wheel. If it does not wake up soon, it will have lost the chance to harness the forces of change for its own good.

A new era has begun, and this will become increasingly clear over the course of the next year. Traditional European debates can no longer take for granted the strength of the transatlantic alliance or steady progress toward “ever closer union.” Trump’s America has said its goodbyes, and Europe’s old social model is broken, with no replacement on offer. Neither nostalgia for a mythical past nor China’s authoritarian model of governance represents a serviceable alternative.

The crises threatening Europe will unfold relentlessly and for all to see. At best, 2019 will be a year of defensive maneuvering, rather than the start of a European renewal. But in the long run, a reconstructed Europe is the only option. That contradiction will define this age of transition, which brooks no shortcuts or panaceas.

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