© European Union 2017 – European Parliament
In 2016, former chief economist of the European Central Bank Otmar Issing called the euro a “house of cards” that would soon fall. Italian banking woes led Forbes to publish an “Investor’s Guide to the Collapse of the European Union.” Politicians feared that Brexit—and a Trump presidency in the U.S.—would galvanize nationalist movements across Europe, with one journalist predicting the continent would be “swept away in a catastrophic populist revolt.” Others warned that a Marine Le Pen victory in France would kill the E.U. altogether.
But now, it’s clear these fears were all greatly exaggerated. The eurozone remains intact and its economic growth is finally picking up. Across Western Europe, nationalist leaders received defeats, not majorities, including Le Pen’s loss to Macron. Frexit didn’t happen, and other European nations haven’t made moves to leave the E.U.
The alarmists and Euroskeptics are finding it harder than ever to wear their smug smiles and whisper “any day now.”
Brexit was not a death knell for the great European project, but rather an opportunity for the remaining nations to come together. In fact, pro-E.U. sentiment is on the rise, even in the U.K. And as the E.U. shrinks on its northwestern border, its influence is expanding eastward: Ukraine recently became part of the Schengen zone, guaranteeing Ukrainians visa-free travel across the region. On June 26, Albanians voted overwhelmingly in favor of reforms that will push them closer toward E.U. membership.
On the global stage, America’s retreat has made way for European figures to assume greater leadership. When Trump waffled over his NATO commitments, Merkel proclaimed “we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.” The day Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Macron pledged to “make our planet great again” and encouraged climate scientists and researchers to come work in France. While the Trump administration looks inward (and backward) and deals with its hefty share of scandals and investigations, Europe is becoming the face of Western liberal values—the world’s moral force left standing.
In short, there’s good reason to recognize—and celebrate—the E.U.’s recent upswing. Nonetheless, the fears and warnings of pundits, though exaggerated, are not baseless, so there’s little room for Europeans to become complacent.
First, the European economy has proved resilient but not indestructible. The European Commission recently indicated that the bloc was on track for recovery, but it also warned of the “exceptional risks” posed by Brexit and a volatile United States. European leaders should continue to pass legislation with an eye towards economic growth. As Blackrock’s Vice Chairman Philipp Hildeman recently pointed out, France in particular will need to reform its floundering labor market if the eurozone economies are to flourish.
Secondly, nationalist sentiment in Europe did not vanish with the defeat of far-right leaders in Austria, the Netherlands, and France. In Austria, for instance, political parties are flirting with dangerous coalitions with the far right. Europe’s nationalist underbelly may not be showing up on billboards across Paris and The Hague, but in many parts of the continent—including Poland and Hungary—far-right movements continue to swell, and they shouldn’t be ignored.
Finally, the E.U. may have “survived” the migrant crisis, but at what cost? Striking a controversial deal with Turkey last year, the E.U. stranded thousands of refugees in camps in the Balkans and rerouted many others back to Turkey. And with soaring death tolls in the Mediterranean and hundreds of miles of barbed wire fences at its borders, has the E.U. solved the problem or narrowly (and immorally) avoided it? If Europe hopes to maintain its status as a force for good in the world, it will need to do more to address the humanitarian crisis at its borders.
The continent has committed itself to a prodigious project—one to outlast its political leaders and endure generation after generation, so there’s no time to rest. The German election in September will likely mean more Merkel, but as recent political upsets have shown us, anything can happen. Once it has finished celebrating its well-deserved honeymoon with Macron, Europe will need to get to work.