Opinion | What’s behind Europe’s surly mood? ‘Whaddya got?’


PARIS — This is not your parents’ Europe.

In France, the world’s top wine producer, millions have quit drinking the stuff, many in favor of beer.

In Germany, renowned for its efficiency, trains are routinely late or canceled.

In the Netherlands, traditional bastion of moderation and tolerance, a candidate notorious for immoderation and intolerance won a shock election victory.

Now, the 27 nations of the European Union, which accounts for 450 million people and about one-sixth of the global economy, are faced with the prospect of more sweeping change. War, migration, post-pandemic recessions and farmers furious at climate change measures have turbocharged an accelerating populist advance in much of the E.U. just as the bloc prepares to elect a new parliament this spring.

Add to that an anticipated tsunami of deepfakes and disinformation orchestrated by the Kremlin, and the stage is set for what might be Europe’s most disorienting political shift in decades. The underlying test is whether, amid turbulent headwinds, the center can hold after decades of broad consensus.

The E.U. balloting — actually 27 separate elections in each member state to be held June 6-9 — will select more than 700 members of the alliance’s parliament for a five-year term. That body, despite limited powers, retains the ability to obstruct or derail laws and policies that shape lives across the continent.

The outcome will determine whether ascendant fringe-right parties banking on a wave of protest votes can shake the E.U.’s steadfast stands against climate change, Russian aggression and the creeping advance of authoritarianism on the continent and elsewhere. If those parties can crack the centrist grip on power, they could trigger seismic political disruptions even as the E.U.’s closest ally, the United States, shifts its strategic focus toward Asia.

Polling ahead of the elections suggest the center’s majority will survive, in diminished form, despite gains by hard-right groups that include Moscow-friendly parties. Those right-wing populists, who generally oppose the E.U.’s integrationist policies and powers, are expected to win in France, Poland, Italy and six other states, according to a recent analysis by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Still, the hard right has over-performed repeatedly — notably in last fall’s Dutch elections, where few anticipated the victory of a long-marginalized anti-immigrant party.

The elections are unlikely to impede Europe’s support for Ukraine, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a long game in Europe. His aim is not to just to subvert backing for Kyiv, but to leverage propaganda that inflames the continent’s neuralgic divisions. And in the E.U., he has plenty of openings.

In the past six months, French authorities uncovered two vast, Kremlin-directed projects to flood Europe with disinformation ahead of the E.U. elections. One, called “Portal Kombat,” featured nearly 200 websites able to produce disinformation in English, German, French and Spanish. The other, dubbed “Doppelganger” by E.U. officials, involved more than 1,000 bots on X (formerly Twitter) linked to a Russian-directed network that propagates fake news through phony replicas of Western media sites.

Germany, by far the E.U.’s biggest country by population and economic heft, offers a particularly soft target. There, an unpopular, dysfunctional government has struggled to revive the country’s stagnant economy. A lack of public investment has left basic infrastructure, including the train system, in tatters.

Unhappy Germans, especially a swelling cohort of the elderly, are a key factor in the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. Its support hovers at nearly 20 percent — more than any of the three parties in the governing coalition — despite incendiary reports that some of its senior leaders had discussed a “master plan” for deporting millions of foreign-born German citizens.

The durability of the AfD’s popularity, and of other European populist parties riding a wave of outrage over migration, suggests the E.U. parliament elected this spring will support much tougher measures toward asylum seekers. That could spell long-term problems on a continent where birthrates are falling, sapping growth prospects for the labor force and for economies facing stiffening competition from China.

Major gains by populist parties could also spell trouble for the E.U.’s ambitious policies for cutting carbon emissions, targeted for net zero by 2050. Those measures have largely survived despite a backlash that included farmers’ protests, prompting officials to scale back some rules.

A muscular E.U. raised a roughly $1 trillion bailout fund to help keep member states solvent during the pandemic. It has led a concerted, if inadequately robust, response to Putin’s aggression.

Staying the course would serve the continent’s, and the West’s, best interests. But surly voters across the continent might force the E.U. to constrict its vision. They call to mind Marlon Brando’s character in the 1953 Hollywood classic “The Wild One.” Asked what he was rebelling against, he replied, “Whaddya got?”



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