EU once again at crossroads

Incoming Brexit, European elections, rising populism and foreign threats will put the Union under growing pressure

The European Union is entering 2019 pressured by a number of problems and issues, some of which could turn into crises. By end-March the United Kingdom will have to leave the Union. With less than three months left, there is still no certainty whether it will happen with or without deal. While hopes are high that British MPs will eventually support May's Brexit plan, both the EU and the UK will be weakened once Britain left the Union.

With the UK's departure, the EU will shrink for the first time in its 60-year-old history. Without Britain's military, the EU will count for less. In economic terms, the Union would cope without the UK, while the damage for Britain is likely to be far greater. The British government has already admitted that Brexit will have initial negative effects, with or without agreement. With British Parliament completely deadlocked, there is still a chance for Brexit to be postponed, or even cancelled, but too few count on such a scenario.

Less than two months after Brexit, in May, a new European Parliament will be elected. The election result will for sure reflect growing popular dissatisfaction with the EU. And all pollsters forecast that members of radical right-wing and populist parties among MEPs will rise sharply to become up to 20% of all representatives. With the anti-EU faction that strong, although not the strongest one, Parliament's ability and will to deepen reforms will be seriously weakened.

Europe ended 2018 under the cloud of social protests most vocal of which were those of the so-called “yellow vests” in France. Dissatisfied with the status quo, protesters challenged France's president in particular, seen as a counterweight to the populist anti-EU movements. With Emmanuel Macron under pressure, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping out of power, the EU is set to lose some of its driving forces and pillars, and to be further put under strain.

Following the European elections, fresh faces will enter top EU offices, from president of the European Commission to president of the European Central Bank. Naming and approving of new commissioners may drag until late autumn, depending of the candidates presented by Member States, and this may further deepen the already complex EU conundrum. But with new faces coming, there is also hope for new beginnings and a new approach to problems.

And besides those and many other internal problems, the EU is facing a number of foreign threats. Among them, the one coming from Russia is considered as the most dangerous. The Kremlin has already intensified its disinformation efforts ahead of European elections, betting on anti-EU forces. It has also demonstrated military might combined with a strong determination to change the established world order. This has started few years ago with Crimea's annexation, and is likely to continue.

And while a couple of years ago Europe could rely on the US for support and security, this is not the case with the current White House master, who is also a global world order challenger. And what he challenges most are some of the US partners, namely the EU. 2019 promises to be yet another year with Euro-Atlantic relations put under question and strain. Which will only help Europe's rivals such as, for example, China.

The EU is once again at crossroads. And this time the challenges are more and more complex. 2019 will show whether the Union will thrive or will start slowly fading away.

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