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Two years from Brexit and EU is on the back foot again
THE weekend marked the second anniversary of the landmark Brexit referendum which sent shockwaves around the world and proved a harbinger for Donald Trump's presidential election. Two years later, with the exit process having consumed a massive amount of time of both London and Brussels, the EU is on the back foot again for reasons of Brexit and beyond.
It is in this context that European presidents and prime ministers will meet this week for the final EU summit before autumn. The very limited progress between London and Brussels in Brexit talks will be a key feature of the session and, with little to no progress expected, October's meeting could therefore be decisive in determining whether a settlement deal is agreed upon - or not.
In the two years since the blow to Brussels caused by the Brexit referendum, the mood music across the EU-27 states has been mixed. In the second half of 2017 and early 2018, EU politicians had a new spring in their step as the overall political and economic climate for the continent improved.
What drove this turnaround in sentiment was the failure of far-right populists to win key electoral contests in France and the Netherlands, and many of the continent's leaders sense that the current Eurosceptic wave may have reached its peak. This political fillip had been reinforced by stronger economic data too with the Eurozone economies performing better after several years of slow growth.
However, the storm clouds are gathering again, highlighting the fragility of the political situation across the continent as shown by the faltering Brexit talks; plus the election of Italy's Eurosceptic Five Star-The League coalition government; the possibility that Angela Merkel's German government could collapse in coming days; and the growing populist surge in eastern Europe, including Hungary and Poland.
In the context of the 2016 Brexit vote, European Council President Donald Tusk last year remarked that the threats facing the EU were perhaps "more dangerous than ever" with three key challenges "which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale" that the continent must tackle. According to Mr Tusk, the first two dangers related to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the "state of mind of pro-European elites" which Mr Tusk fears are too subservient to "populist arguments as well as doubting in the fundamental values if liberal democracy".
While Brexit exemplifies, from Mr Tusk's perspective, these challenges, the problem is by no means limited to the United Kingdom. Indeed, 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.
At the forthcoming summit in Brussels, there are a whole string of divisive issues on the agenda which speak to Mr Tusk's concern. This includes asylum and immigration, which potentially risks the future of Mrs Merkel's administration in Berlin because of her rift with her coalition partners - the Christian Social Union - on this issue.
Specifically, Mrs Merkel is under pressure from her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who is threatening, from July 1, to turn away any asylum seekers already registered in other EU countries at the German border, unless Mrs Merkel can find bilateral or multilateral solutions to the dispute with Germany's EU partners.
DIVISIONS ACROSS CONTINENT
This exposes divisions across the continent between Germany and France, which are pushing for a deal, and other countries such as Hungary and Italy, run by populist leaders who are much more sceptical.
This latter harder-line stance was exemplified in Hungary only last week when the nation's Parliament passed laws on Wednesday to criminalise any individual or group offering to help asylum claimants. This follows Viktor Orban's landslide re-election in April after a campaign in which immigration featured heavily after his government refused EU proposals for it taking a quota of refugees.
If these issues were not big enough for the EU to tackle, the third threat cited by Mr Tusk is 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 US President Donald Trump openly calling for more Brexits across the continent.
And it is in this context that Brussels is pushing forward with a European Defence Action Plan that advocates greater military cooperation between EU member states. This is being driven, in part, by the reality cited by Mr Tusk of Mr Trump's uncertain commitment to European allies, and the fact that Brexit too eliminates a longstanding obstacle to greater European cooperation in this sphere given that successive UK governments have been opposed to deeper defence integration at the EU level.
Taken overall, decisions in coming months will help define the EU's longer-term political and economic character in the face of multiple challenges, including Brexit, still facing the continent. While a growing number of European leaders sensed last year that the Euroskeptic wave may have passed its peak, storm clouds are now gathering again, including on the immigration and asylum agenda, which potentially threatens the future of Mrs Merkel's government in coming days.
- The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.