Not all that long ago the European Union seemed to inspire doubt not hope: a project reaching its 60th anniversary looked to many as if it might be heading for its death bed, or at least the emergency room. The eurozone, some said, would soon crumble as a result of faulty construction and rash policies. A populist wave was certain to sweep away institutions based on liberal democracy and shared sovereignty. Citizens would irreversibly turn their backs on a club which apparently combined high-mindedness and inefficiency.
With Brexit, 2016 was the EU’s annus horribilis. The year before that the refugee crisis, critics said, had exposed the EU as a fair-weather construct – unable to cope with the unforeseen. In 2014, extremist parties had already made spectacular gains in the EU parliament. In its bleakest moments the EU, it was said, had been a reputable and worthy project but one with perhaps a limited lifespan. The politics of fear were about to send it to the dustbin of history. Today, this doomsday narrative no longer applies. For one thing, Brexit has produced no domino effect. Britain’s despondency serves as daily proof that the path must be avoided by others. Far from breaking up, the eurozone is set to grow at the fastest annual pace since 2011. The migration issue hasn’t disappeared, but with the numbers down, its disruptive impacts on politics seem for now contained. Populism is no longer seen as an irrepressible force. Far-right slogans calling for a continent-wide Patriotic Spring in 2017 have come to nothing.
On Wednesday Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU commission president, will echo this sense of renewed confidence in his annual “state of the Union” address, notably outlining a more robust approach to foreign takeovers to win support among European citizens for trade deals. In France, president Emmanuel Macron will face a stern test over his proposed changes to the labour market with thousands of protests planned. The French president was wrong to describe those who oppose his plans as “lazy”. He is perhaps too confident – with the trade unions divided and a big majority in parliament. Nowhere is this being more closely watched than in Germany, where Angela Merkel looks poised to be re-elected later this month, quite a political feat given that her downfall had been described as all but inevitable after the 2015 refugee crisis. It’s true the anti-immigrant AfD party is set to enter the Bundestag for the first time, but the traditional parties are still in charge. Elsewhere, in Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, populists have failed either to reach power or remain in government coalitions.
The mood in the EU is, if anything, upbeat. Plans for deeper eurozone integration are being floated, as are moves to enhance security cooperation, and the creation of a common digital market. Public trust in the EU is rising. No doubt, there are still tensions and uncertainties. Poland’s and Hungary’s populist governments are up in arms with the EU institutions over rule of law and migration quotas. The bloc’s cohesion on values is its biggest challenge. Doubts hang over the future of eurozone governance. France and Germany have a chance to correct monetary union’s flaws, which they should seize. Italy’s politics, with elections next year, and the state of its banking sector are a concern. Post-Brexit, 80% of Nato defence spending will be non-EU. An upcoming Russian military exercise has already put nerves on edge.
But those who believed Brexit and Donald Trump would be nails in the EU’s coffin need to rethink. Viewed from the continent, Brexit is all but a side show – not even mentioned once in the German election TV debate. Trumpism has helped convince more Europeans they need to stick together, not come apart.
Europe has been under strain, but it has not cracked. If anything, the setbacks have given the EU a stronger sense of what it is – and what it is not. Better awareness of this in Britain is long overdue.