LONDON – European Union heads of state just gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome at a time when nativist nationalists are threatening to destroy Europe’s open liberal societies. As the recent Dutch election showed, such forces can be defeated. But the capacity to do so will be tested in three more important elections – in France, Germany, and Italy – by next spring, and those who want the EU to survive will need to fight hard, and on many fronts.
The first step is to recognize how grave the populist threat really is. Liberal internationalists cannot afford to be complacent. Most thought it inconceivable that the British would vote to leave the EU, and yet they did. Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in the United States was largely dismissed, until he won.
Yet most Europeans continue to underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cyber and propaganda war against the West – a war that aims to help bring to power far-right populists bent on the EU’s destruction. Although Dutch voters flocked to the polls to deny victory to the extreme xenophobe Geert Wilders, the risk of another populist upset remains real.
It could take only one such upset to fatally wound the EU – particularly if that victory brings Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front to power in France in May. Even if Le Pen fails to win the presidency, the formation of an anti-euro government in Italy after its next election could fracture the currency union.