The European Union, faced with forces of disintegration, is mostly holding its ground. This year will test whether it can also advance.
The bloc and its political establishment have had to prove their resilience repeatedly over the past decade, in the face of challenges ranging from financial calamity to populism. Fixing underlying problems, however, is proving more difficult than merely surviving.
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The good news for the EU: Its economic heartland, the euro currency zone, is finally enjoying a boom, albeit unevenly spread, after years of struggle to shake off the financial crisis.
Pro-EU politicians also have won a string of crucial elections that were seen as showdowns with populist insurgents. Antiestablishment parties, especially on the nationalist far right, won more votes than previously, but less than they were hoping for in several countries.
And the 27 countries that want to stay in the EU have maintained an unexpected unity in the face of the U.K.'s decision to leave. Even many nationalist parties on the Continent have dropped talk of EU exit after it proved unpopular.
"None of the alternatives to the EU are particularly attractive to most Europeans," says Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist and author of the book "After Europe" on the EU's challenges. "That's why the first reaction to Brexit was more support for the EU."
Yet the political consensus that underpins today's European order has been fraying over time. Voters are steadily abandoning traditional center-left and center-right parties, often perceived as remote and technocratic. Swaths of European society are worried about losing economic security or cultural identity in the face of globalization, immigration and generally rapid change.
Surveys show the EU and the euro are often seen as a mixed blessing, even though public support for leaving them is generally low. And the eurozone's design flaws, which contributed to its long crisis, have only been partially fixed -- including a weak safety net for crisis-hit banks and fiscal rules that can exaggerate booms and busts.
The biggest risk this year could be that the cyclical economic upturn reduces the pressure on EU leaders to shore up Europeans' trust in the economic and political order that the Continent has sought to build since the end of the Cold War. And if their trust isn't bolstered, the Continent could eventually see a resurgent populist challenge that tests the EU's survival more seriously.
Europe's populist movements are ideologically eclectic. But most are a backlash against one or more aspects of the "integration consensus," a drive for continual blending of Europe's states, economies and peoples, under EU rules that promote cross-border policy-making, business and migration, says Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who teaches at the University of Georgia.
"Above all, the backlashes are directed against individual parties" that have overseen this long-term integration, Mr. Mudde says. "And although support has waned for centrist parties and the general status quo, most of these voters haven't attached themselves strongly to something else."
Watching the results
Two more elections this spring, in Italy and Hungary, will again gauge the strength of rebels proffering alternatives to the EU's political mainstream. In Italy, the upstart 5 Star Movement, with its fierce critique of professional incumbents, is expected to become the biggest single party in Parliament, with roughly a quarter of all votes. But its rejection of coalitions with established politicians means Italy's government is likely to remain an unstable patchwork of old parties.
The anti-immigration Northern League is also expected to do well, and like the 5 Star Movement has sometimes called for a referendum on Italy's membership of the euro. The political and legal hurdles to such a referendum are high, however. Surveys suggest only a minority would vote to go back to the lira. But the popular majority in favor of the euro is weaker than in most other countries, thanks to Italy's continuing economic travails.
Italy's economy is growing again but more weakly than elsewhere in Europe. Output remains far lower than a decade ago, when the financial crisis began. Sagging productivity has long held back Italy's economy, while corruption and paralysis have discredited its political class. Few observers believe the elections will lead to a strong government that can make deep changes to the country.
Hungarians are expected to re-elect the nationalist Fidesz party of Premier Viktor Orban, who has declared he wants to build an "illiberal state" that diverges from the Western model of liberal democracy based on checks and balances. Mr. Orban's government has vowed to veto EU actions against Poland, whose ruling nationalist party is asserting control over the judiciary, media and other institutions, leading the EU and the U.S. to voice concern about a weakening of Polish democracy.
Hungary and Poland want to stay in the EU, which they believe serves their economic self-interest and national security. But both governments have discovered the value of attacking the EU for being overbearing. Their growing challenge to EU norms on how independent institutions in a democracy should be means their tensions with the bloc's establishment are likely to fester.
Such nationalist movements may have won elections only in the EU's eastern members so far, but they're a growing opposition force in Western Europe, too.
That helps explain why attempts to reform the EU itself by deepening integration are struggling to get off the ground. Among key EU national leaders, only French President Emmanuel Macron is displaying strong conviction that deeper EU integration is the answer to popular disillusion. Others including German Chancellor Angela Merkel are more cautious, especially about turning the eurozone into a fiscal union with its own budget, taxes and bonds, as Mr. Macron has suggested.
The fact that Germany starts 2018 with only a caretaker government is another brake on talks about further integration. Ms. Merkel has been unable to form a governing coalition since Germany's inconclusive elections in September. Her potential coalition partner Martin Schulz, head of the center-left Social Democrats, recently called for a "United States of Europe" by 2025. But the Social Democrats have proved reluctant in practice to fight against Ms. Merkel's policies in Europe, knowing that spending more German taxpayer money on other eurozone economies isn't popular.
Germany and France are aiming for some progress this year on bolstering eurozone institutions, as well as improving cooperation on security and migration. Most policy makers say changes will be incremental.
"The EU is not beating its enemies but exhausting them," says Mr. Krastev.
Mr. Walker is a senior European correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Email email@example.com.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 22, 2018 15:30 ET (20:30 GMT)
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