The recent 60th anniversary celebrations in Rome were justifiably optimistic. The European Union may well have negotiated its rough patch and from here on out it could prove to be smooth sailing
The European Union is currently experiencing turbulent times. Britain’s is now officially leaving the bloc and Eurosceptic movements are playing a prominent role in upcoming elections in France, Germany and Italy.
Nevertheless, 27 European leaders recently gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community.
While it might seem like an odd time to celebrate economic integration in Europe, these leaders do have reasons to be optimistic, as the worst for the European Union may already be over.
There is hope and indication that Britain will be alone in its farewell to the bloc. Recent developments, including the Pope’s powerful speech to EU leaders, the United States’ impaired image abroad, and allegations of Russian intervention in European politics will likely undermine the far-right European movement in the upcoming elections.
While the prospect of the European Union’s dissolution fades, structural and political changes within the organisation seem inevitable.
Undoubtedly, the Pope’s speech will resonate with many Europeans. Addressing the European leaders in the historic Sistine Chapel, Pope Francis warned of the frailty of the Union and the rising threat of extremism.
“Europe finds new hope,” he said, “in solidarity, which is also the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism.” Describing the European Union as “a way of understanding man based on his transcendent and inalienable dignity” instead of “a manual of protocols and procedures to follow,” he preached openness to the future and dedication to development and peace.
His appeal to Christian values in encouraging European solidarity against the resurgence of nationalism is likely to have a substantial effect on far-right leaning Europeans.
A faction of the European society has found appeal in the anti-European Union and anti-immigration message of resurgent nationalist far-right political parties based on their feelings of exclusion by the bloc’s economic and political policies.
As a result, these parties have gained a degree of mainstream support unseen in the past eighty years. Due to the prominence of the refugee crisis in the European psyche and its inherent religious undertones, the same faction of Europeans who find this populist rhetoric appealing are the faction most likely to be swayed by his Holiness’ speech.
The political landscape in the United States will also, presumably, influence the outcome of the European elections and the far right’s prospects for success. Just as President Trump’s protectionist and anti-immigrant platform resonated with Europe’s populist voters, the administration’s impotence to match campaign rhetoric with policy action is alarming.
From an inability to work with a Republican Congress to pass a healthcare bill, to the challenges to the travel ban aimed at several Muslim-majority countries, and on to the never-ending allegations of Russian ties to Trump’s administration, the failings of the far-right movement in America are sure to cause ripples across the pond.
While the staunchest supporters of the European far right will not be deterred by the faltering of the Trump administration, those whose alignment with the far right is a function of their disappointment in the recent past may be alarmed by signs of trouble in the United States.
In other words, watching the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, Europeans are experiencing the same political awakening that is currently taking place in the United States, but luckily for those in the European Union this is happening before their own elections.
In fact, the 82% voter turnout in the Netherlands, the highest in 30 years, where Wilders’ Freedom Party was defeated, may indicate similar turnout rates in other European nations.
In France, recent polls, which showed Marine Le Pen’s National Front party ahead of the closest candidate by seven points, now predict Emmanuel Macron, the centrist ex-cabinet member, to win the election in May.
Also, in neighbouring Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany party lost two points according to latest polls, dropping to 7%, the lowest since November 2015.
Russia’s support of various anti-European Union candidates should also give far-right leaning voters pause. Since the invasion of Ukraine, European nations have worried about Russia’s ability and willingness to use force in violation of Eastern European nations’ territorial integrity.
This anxiety is exacerbated by allegations of Russian interference in European elections. Whether through social media or donations to political campaigns, Russia has declared its intentions for a regressive future in Europe.
These developments can inhibit a far right victory, continuing the trend in the Bulgarian, Spanish, Austrian, and Dutch elections. No one can deny that there has been a shift to the right in European national politics.
But, realistically, the resurgence of nationalistic sentiments in the region is an indication that the European Union is in need of reform rather than a signal of its doom.
Recently, the European Commission published a white paper setting out five likely scenarios for the future of European Union. One scenario is especially popular.
A “multi-speed Europe” would allow members to selectively participate in various initiatives, while allowing them to opt out if they choose. In this way, the system could be more effective to cure the division in the eurozone and the challenges new members face.
The European Union has shown resilience in surviving successive crises in the past years. The European Union of today is very different than the one envisioned in the Treaty of Rome; and while it will undoubtedly look different twenty years from now, it will still be there.
*Merve Demirel is the International Law & Governance Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She earned her JD from American University in 2012.