BRUSSELS, Belgium – The European Union faces fresh existential doubts as 2018 comes to a close, with Germany and France gripped by leadership uncertainty and the bloc they anchor facing a rising populist tide.
Britain leaves the 28-nation EU on March 29, either in a bitter but orderly divorce or a disruptive "no-deal" Brexit, and just two months later voters across the bloc elect a new European Parliament.
"2019 will be a pivotal year with major challenges," said Jonathan Faull, a former senior administrator at the European Commission, the union's Brussels-based executive arm.
The elections in May will be a confrontation between mainstream parties and euroskeptic movements tapping into popular anger over migration.
France's President Emmanuel Macron's authority as a liberal champion has been dented by the "yellow vest" protests rocking his country, and the long reign of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is ending.
"We must manage Brexit, the rise of populism and its causes, Merkel's departure, all that without knowing whether Macron can regain the upper hand," Faull told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Even if indicators suggest Europe's finances have recovered from the 2008 crisis, the scars of its bitter aftermath still criss-cross the bloc's diverse and now politically-divided economies.
"Europe has until now held up during crises thanks to the Franco-German couple. But today, it is attacked from inside and threatened with collapse," an official from a major EU country told AFP.
Hungary and Poland have elected leaders who have received warnings from Brussels that they pose threats to the EU's founding democratic values.
The extreme right has made electoral gains across Europe, to the point of even joining governing coalitions in Austria and Italy.
"Merkel must think well before leaving office. There remain very few leaders capable of reviving the situation. Macron has problems and all the others are doing badly," the official said.
A diplomat said the 2015 refugee crisis, Europe's worst since World War II, was badly managed.
Merkel and others pushed for quotas to relocate asylum seekers from frontline countries like Italy and Greece, only to fuel the populist forces rising in areas long spared large-scale immigration.
"It was a political blunder," the EU diplomat told AFP on the condition of anonymity.
Exploited by authoritarians and rightwing populists, the debate over migration has fractured the EU.
More than 3 years on, 7 EU countries refused to sign the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration adopted this week in Morocco by more than 160 governments.
The political deadlock over migration had steadily weakened Merkel even before rebels within her CDU party forced her to step aside.
With an ally installed in the party leadership, Merkel has pledged to stay in office until her term ends in 2021, but experts refuse to rule out the possibility of elections whose results are uncertain.
In France, Macron faces a broadening challenge to his leadership, from traditional opponents as well as the unpredictable "yellow vests," who have staged weeks of protests against his policies.
Nor can he use his drive to reform the governance of the EU to regain traction, as "Germany was unable or unwilling" to follow him, according to Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn.
'A great fear'
"Macron's determination to rebuild Europe fell on deaf ears outside France," said Dutch political analyst Luuk van Middelaar.
Long marked by low voter turnout, the European elections in May face other problems.
No strong personality is yet in the running for Brussels' top job, president of the European Commission. In France, the vote could turn into a referendum on Macron's leadership.
Euroskeptic parties could also make big gains in the European Parliament elections, even if the departure of British MEPs will deprive them of many allies.
"We must avoid having Europe fall under the grip of those who want to destroy it," Asselborn told AFP.
However, former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta refused to be alarmist. "It will be very complicated for the populists to group together," he said.
"I don't discount the risks. We hear a great fear expressed pretty much everywhere. But not everything is going in the wrong direction."
"When the populists are under fire, they retreat," said Letta, who now heads the Jacques Delors Institute think tank.
"The European Union is not about to break up. The Brexiteers in the United Kingdom and the populists in Italy understand this," he told AFP.
Faull, who now head international business consultants Brunswick, also offered a measured assessment.
"The bloc remained united in the face of Brexit, the institutions are working and nobody wants to abandon the euro anymore," Faull said. – Rappler.com