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Europe is beset by global threats. How will a destabilised EU cope with them? | Nathalie Tocci



The European election results both confirmed and invalidated a widely expected rightwing surge. But what does this mean for Europe’s place in the world at a time when Putin has the upper hand in Ukraine, war in the Middle East shows no sign of ending, Trump is a threat on the US electoral horizon and China is throwing its weight around?

The far-right surge was felt most acutely in Europe’s two largest countries. If you glance at the electoral maps of France and Germany, they are stunning. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally’s victory on the map of France is ubiquitous; in the latter, the east-west cleavage is as deep as ever, with the far-right AfD tightening its grip on eastern Germany. In other European countries, such as Italy and Austria, the far right also topped the polls.

The far right-on-the-march narrative was not borne out however in most other countries or within the EU itself. In Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and even in Hungary, the far right underperformed.

In Italy too, while Giorgia Meloni topped the polls at almost 29%, this is a far cry from Matteo Salvini’s 34% at the 2019 European elections: Italy’s contribution to the rightwing surge is a net negative. All in all, the far right has made inroads, but this is not a landslide, increasing its overall share in the European parliament from around 20% to 23%.

This means that the “governing” majority in the European parliament is likely to remain the same, featuring the centre-right European People’s party, the socialists and the liberals. Like last time around, this will probably be insufficient for Ursula von der Leyen to be elected to a second term as president of the EU executive, the European Commission. She will need to win over others too.

The two options available in principle to her now are the Greens and the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists group, (ECR). The Greens, among the big losers from this election, may be more amenable to compromise than they were last time, and perhaps more willing to support von der Leyen. And with their support, the pro-European majority could hold.

But does this mean that everything changes so that nothing changes in Europe? Tragically not. Let us suppose a best-case scenario in which a pro-European majority in the Brussels parliament holds, Macron’s gamble to call snap elections in France pays off and the wave of support for the AfD in Germany subsides. Europe’s predicament remains bleak.

The challenges facing Europe are dramatic. War on the continent, the spiralling climate crisis, a brewing trade war between the US and China, the trampling of international law in the Middle East and Europe’s tattered reputation in the global south will all top the European policy agenda in the months ahead. Whatever the political machinations in Europe, the external context will shape Europe’s policy priorities; governments and institutions will not be able to shy away from them.

The EU’s internal political dynamics make a world of a difference to how it collectively goes about addressing these priorities. There is a huge difference between on the one hand, prioritising spending on national defence policies and on the other, putting real money into retooling the European economy and public spending for collective European defence. A more right-leaning EU, even slightly so, will have a much harder time agreeing on meaningful steps towards defence integration, underpinned by a significant new EU defence fund.

There is also a categorical gap between an EU agenda that doubles down on protectionism against China, and one that invests in green and digital technologies. A more nationalistic and less green union may be happy to collectively raise Europe’s tariffs on Chinese products and restrict Chinese investments. But it would hardly want to fund a European industrial policy even if that is what is needed to allow the EU to be competitive on the energy and digital transitions, let alone to make any progress on agriculture reforms needed to achieve environmental protection and climate goals.

Enlargement of the EU beyond its current membership of 27 countries, potentially to as many as 35, could be pursued by following an exclusively geopolitical rationale and seeing the EU’s widening as the flip side of its internal dilution. Or it could be an opportunity to undertake far-reaching institutional reforms, both within the candidate countries and in the EU, for instance by scrapping the right of countries to use their veto to block decisions, in other words widening and deepening at the same time. A more Eurosceptic EU would be happy to proceed with the former – widening and loosening – but certainly not with the latter.

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Finally, it is one thing to address the concerns of the global south by recommitting to international law and significantly increasing climate finance. It is quite another to pursue short-term mercantilist funding deals aimed at stopping migration. The EU’s standing in the eyes of the global south has already plummeted over the past few months. A more illiberal EU would neither have the political will nor the credibility to talk about human rights and international law in most corners of the world.

The European elections may not have led to the worst form of rightwing surge. But it’s a bittersweet sigh of relief. Coming out of these elections in only a marginally worse position than we entered them in is a meagre consolation given Europe’s dramatic predicament.

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