By Michelle Shevin-Coetzee

On September 16, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with fellow EU leaders in Bratislava, Slovakia. The mood will certainly be tense as Europe faces the repercussions of Britain’s vote to depart the European Union, tremendous pressure from the migration crisis, a heightened threat of terrorism, and a resurgence of Russian aggression. As the de facto leader of the EU, Merkel’s goal will be to set an agenda for Europe and reinvigorate belief in the future of the European project. Merkel and her counterparts, however, cannot simply focus on the difficult weeks and months ahead, but must also use this meeting as an opportunity to set Europe’s long-term course. The EU’s leaders, therefore, should consider their response to four specific trends that threaten European unity.

First, the rise of regional blocs. The variety and valence of Europe’s many crises have prompted member states to define priorities and craft responses along geographic lines. The Baltic states’ concerns about Russia, for example, are largely absent in Italy and Greece, who worry more about instability in the Middle East and North Africa. This divergence in threat perception divides the continent and presents perhaps the greatest threat to European unity. The growing solidarity within each of these blocs is particularly acute in the Baltic and Nordic regions, as well as in the Visegrad Group (V4). Although these blocs provide important perspectives, their interests are beginning to outweigh those of the EU as a whole. Just last month, for example, the V4’s leaders met with Merkel to discuss expectations for the Bratislava Summit amid clashes over Berlin’s proposal to distribute migrants among the EU’s member states. Disagreement behind closed doors is a necessary part of multilateral relationships, but visible and consistent disputes only accentuate signs of a divided Europe.

Second, the growing disconnect between the EU and the populations of member states. Few Europeans have an in-depth understanding of the EU and its institutions. According to a Spring 2013 survey on public opinion, only 51% of Europeans “understand how the EU works.” Overall, familiarity with and knowledge of the EU is rising, albeit slowly, but even in 2016, 46% of respondents to the Standard Eurobarometer 85 survey do not “know what [their]…rights are as a citizen of the EU.” More recently, following London’s referendum on EU membership in June, “what is the EU?” was the second most frequent question on Google in Britain. Although this lack of familiarity is not new, EU membership is once again linked to a loss of national identity and viewed as a cultural threat, challenging the viability of the institution writ large.

Third, the rise of right-wing parties. From Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to France’s Front National, nationalist, Euro-skeptic parties are on the rise across the continent. What the EU’s mainstream parties are loath to recognize, however, is the cross-border collaboration among these organizations. In June, for example, nationalist leaders from the likes of Austria, Italy, France, and Germany gathered in Vienna for a “Patriotic Spring.” Promoting their platform and highlighting areas of commonality, they urged Europeans to question the EU and adopt inward-looking, anti-migration policies. These calls for a return to the nostalgic past and warnings of crooked elites only exacerbate the divergence between the EU and its people.

Fourth, the inadequacy of institutional constructs. As is the case across much of the world, Europe’s challenges are no longer neatly defined as diplomatic, economic, or military. From Russia’s provocative behavior along its borders to the substantial flow of refugees, Europe’s leaders cannot address these crises with one particular tool. Yet this is how relevant institutions are designed. There is recognition of a problem, however, and the EU and NATO, for example, are taking steps to confront it. This past summer, senior leaders from the European Council, European Commission, and NATO issued a joint declaration, pledging to cooperate more closely. Although this marks progress, friction persists. Take the EU’s Operation Sophia, designed to disrupt human trafficking networks in the Mediterranean. The operation is led by the EU and supported by NATO, but both institutions operate vessels in the Mediterranean, feeding concerns about conflicting and duplicative missions.

Given this array of challenges, what is the EU to do? As a first step in repairing trust among the EU’s members, Merkel and her counterparts should elevate the role that the European people play within the institution and give them a stronger voice. Building upon the European Commission’s Citizens’ Dialogues, EU leaders should institutionalize a town hall series held alongside each summit. Convening Europeans from all walks of life to solicit input that strengthens the EU going forward. Engaging in these dialogues can break down geographic biases through its convening power, undercut right wing calls that Brussels is aloof by demonstrating a willingness to engage, and setting an example of sustained collaboration among institutions as a pilot program for EU and NATO initiatives. Most importantly, this series can highlight why the EU matters and how it influences Europeans’ daily lives for the better. Initiatives that engage EU leaders, such as Merkel’s listening tour, help maintain European unity at the highest political levels, but it is time that Brussels reaches the people themselves.

The immediate challenges plaguing Europe are likely to persist, but the EU’s leaders must look beyond the crises that dominate today’s headlines. Now is the opportunity to chart Europe’s future course and examine these four trends that will have long-term repercussions.

Michelle Shevin-Coetzee is a Research Assistant at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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