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COMMENTARY

The worst is not over for EU integration

EUROPEAN Commission President Jean Claude Juncker gives his annual state-of-the-union address on Tuesday, with the continent facing a choppy autumn. Storm clouds are gathering again not only from the Brexit talks, but also Italy's eurosceptic coalition government, as well as the populist surge in Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Poland.

The contrast with last year's state-of-the-union speech is striking, when Mr Juncker asserted that the "wind was back in Europe's sails". After a bad 2016 for the continent, not least with the UK's EU referendum, the European Commission president's address in 2017 was upbeat following a spate of positive political and economic news.

Not only had eurozone economies then recorded significantly improved growth, but also voters in France and the Netherlands had rejected far-right populists, lifting the political mood. Yet, Mr Juncker rightly warned in his speech that the-then good news window "won't stay open forever".

Fast forward to 2018, and the prescience of his warning is clear. In June, he was forced to admit that "the fragility of the EU is increasing". The cracks are growing in size when the summer's European Council summit of presidents and prime ministers struggled to reach a deal on the migrant crisis after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's political future was threatened.

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The fragile agreement then saw a number of EU countries agreeing - on a voluntary basis - to take in migrants rescued from the Mediterranean sea. However, no agreement was reached on refugee quotas, with several states holding out against language that this should be a compulsory EU-wide responsibility.

POLITICAL FRAGILITY

This exposed internal divisions, with Germany and France pushing hard for a comprehensive way through the impasse, while others such as Hungary and Italy - run by populist leaders - were much more sceptical. This latter harder-line stance was exemplified in Hungary in June when the nation's parliament passed laws to criminalise any individual or group offering to help asylum claimants following that nation's Prime Minister Viktor Orban's landslide re-election in April.

These ongoing European tensions over asylum and immigration coincide with the expected end-game of the two-year Article 50 Brexit negotiations. With the exit process having consumed a massive amount of time of both London and Brussels, October's EU Council meeting, and a potential emergency summit in November, could be decisive in determining whether an exit deal is agreed or not.

Beyond Brexit, the gathering storm clouds highlight the fragility of the political situation across the continent as shown not just by the election of Italy's eurosceptic coalition government, the weakening of Mrs Merkel's government, as well as the growing populist surge in eastern Europe.

Summing up the challenges, European Council President Donald Tusk remarked that they are perhaps the "most dangerous than ever", with three key challenges "which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale". According to Mr Tusk, the first two threats relate to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the "state of mind of pro-European elites" which he feared are too subservient to "populist arguments as well as doubting in the fundamental values of liberal democracy".

While Brexit exemplifies, from Mr Tusk's perspective, these challenges, the problem is by no means limited to the United Kingdom. Indeed, President Emmanuel Macron admitted earlier this year that even France, one of the two traditional motors of EU integration alongside Germany, would probably vote to leave the EU if presented with a similar choice to UK's 2016 referendum.

And if these issues were not big enough, the third threat cited by Mr Tusk was what he called the new geopolitical reality that has witnessed an increasingly assertive Russia, and instability in the Middle East and Africa which has driven the migration problems impacting Europe. And intensifying this is uncertainty from Washington, with Donald Trump previously calling for more Brexits across the continent.

While Mr Trump is widely criticised across the continent, his message has secured traction with several governments. New Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, for instance, has emerged as his strongest supporter in Western Europe.

MULTIPLE CHALLENGES

This political affinity is reflected in the alignment on key issues such as Russia and immigration, with Mr Conte asserting that both "governments in Rome and Washington represent change, they were chosen ... to change the status quo". While the Italian government has so far kept its powder dry with Brussels, Five Star leader Matteo Salvini has said he wished the nation to leave the EU, while coalition partner The League has called for a referendum on whether Italy should remain in the euro single currency area.

Taken overall, while some in Brussels sensed last year that the eurosceptic wave had passed its peak, storm clouds are gathering again. Decisions in the coming months will help define the EU's longer-term political and economic character in the face of multiple challenges, including Brexit.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics