March marks 65 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, a visionary document that brought six European nations still recovering from the ravages of war into a project to create peace and prosperity across the continent. .
It’s a magnificent anniversary: Most people who reach the age of 65 look at retirement. But age of European Union founding document has not withered the threats against the bloc, and 2022 will present a number of challenges that could crush the unity of the club’s 27 countries.
These could include a shock, far-right election victory France; a new, more deadly variant of coronavirus; a joint Polish-Hungarian blockade of EU decision-making; and a Russian military attack on Ukraine. Although each of them is unlikely, no one is unlikely, and even one of them can paralyze the EU and make it stall.
The EU’s democratic challenges will be critical: as a union, the bloc depends on the integrity of each of its member states, and elections always raise the prospect – no matter how rare – that an anti-democratic candidate wins.
“2022 will be another tumultuous year for democracy,” said Michael Meyer-Resende, CEO of the Berlin-based NGO Democracy Reporting International. “Many important elections in 2022 will be more like referendums on democracy instead of offering voters the choice of different democratic currents.”
The most important is in France, where President Emmanuel Macron is seeking re-election in the presidential vote in April, before the country decides on a new parliament in June. France’s fragmented political landscape means a far-right candidate has a good chance of reaching the second round of the presidential vote, as Marine Le Pen did in 2017.
Mrs Le Pen, who leads the National Rally party, had long looked set to repeat her feat in 2017, at least until another far-right figure emerged, The TV expert who became the politician Eric Zemmour. Both are nationalists who flirt with racism, with little regard for traditional democratic values, let alone supranational organizations like the EU: They talk about removing France from the austerity of the bloc.
“If Le Pen or – God help us, Zemmour – wins, then the EU is thrown into crisis. That’s the nightmare scenario, ”said John Springford, Deputy Director of the Center for European Reform (CER) in London.
But another European election threatens critical consequences for democracy: Hungary. Viktor Orbán has dragged the country against hard-right authoritarianism since returning to another term as prime minister in 2010.
“If Orbán wins again, then he will be brave enough to continue to suppress dissent,” Springford said. “If he loses, champagne corks will appear in Brussels, as it shows that pro-European forces can win – even if it does not mean that populism is gone.”
Another victory by Mr Orbán would also cheer on the EU’s other future dictators, primarily Eastern Europeans. Together with Hungary, Poland has been subjected to regular reprimands from Brussels for eroding democratic institutions, with little effect. The EU finally has a tool to use against them, a “rule of law mechanism” to withhold billions of euros in funding from countries that fail to uphold EU values. But this is an extreme possibility, and officials fear that if activated, it could trigger a crisis within the EU: Budapest and Warsaw could retaliate by blocking decision-making within the bloc.
Further east, the EU faces threats from an increasingly belligerent Russia, which has gathered troops along the border with Ukraine and this week sent military support to neighboring Kazakhstan’s fighting leaders to crush the street unrest. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who honors the old Soviet concept of a “close foreign country”, has also threatened neighboring EU countries – Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – but even an intervention in Ukraine would split the bloc and undermine its aspirations as a global political actor.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic is still increasing life two years after first appearing, and the shadow of the Omicron variant will continue to throw EU plans into uncertainty. The EU must find a balance between to keep people safe and protect the economy – a tension that erupted this week when Mr Macron said he would “Piss” France’s unvaccinated people. With inflation slowly rising, this will spill over into the EU’s plans to reform budgetary rules and channel investment into the green economy.
All these events and trends create a potentially dangerous 2022 for the EU. But the bloc has faced other major crises in the past decade, from Brexit to euro tensions and refugee flows, and managed them. Officials are cautiously optimistic that they can dodge the worst-case scenarios and rebuild. If all goes well, the EU can come stronger than ever.
Re-election of Mr Macron (or even his center-right opponent, Valérie Pécresse) would set the stage for a renewed Franco-German engine with the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In Hungary, Mr Orbán’s opponents have united behind a single candidate and have a good chance of ousting him: his defeat would transform Budapest as well as the EU. Sir. Putin is feeling setbacks by his former Soviet allies – while his threats have encouraged the EU to strengthen its defense ties. Authorities are getting better at handling new Covid-19 waves and variants.
Finally, Brexit, which was a body blow in 2016, is no longer an existential issue for the EU: Britain has left the bloc and no one seems to want to follow them out the door. “The EU has moved on from Brexit,” said Paul Adamson, chairman of the EU-UK Forum and visiting professor at King’s College London. “People see what has happened to Britain since it left. They see how unwanted and messy it is to leave the EU.